Police Body Cameras: Do They Reduce Complaints of Officer Misconduct?

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Police Body Cameras
Police officers wearing body camera equipment.

In today’s technologically-savvy age of the smart phone, almost anyone can record and share live video footage of events in real time. The question of on-duty police officers using body-mounted cameras to capture incidents as they unfold continues to be the subject of intense debate. The practice of using police body cameras is still in the initial stages of evaluation and study, although they are quickly becoming standard equipment in police departments across the United States.

A growing number of state and county legislative departments across the United States have been debating the pros and cons of using police body cameras and whether they should become part of the standard law enforcement officer’s uniform.

As an example, a police department in Rialto, California has been wearing body-mounted cameras for several years now. The cameras record everything that happens between cops and citizens. During the first year after the cams were introduced, the use of force by police officers reportedly declined 60% and complaints from citizens against law enforcement officers decreased by 88%.

Here is a closer look at body mount cameras and the positives and negatives to on-duty police officers wearing cameras to record interactions during their daily line of work.

Overview of Police Body Cameras

The cameras are tiny portable devices, about the size and length of a cigarette stick, which can be easily mounted on sunglasses, clipped to hats or helmets, or attached to uniform collars or lapels. The base of the recording device is wired and attached to the officer’s uniform and sits concealed in a pocket.

Officers are required to wear the cams throughout their shift. The batteries last for approximately 12 ½ hours. The devices are capable of recording high quality video, even in situations where light is compromised such as in dark, interior spaces or at night. TASER® International Inc., one of the largest providers of video equipment and stun guns to law enforcement divisions in America, presents a wide range of video cameras that span from $400 to $700 each.

However, the total cost may be as much as $1,200 per unit when additional costs associated with maintenance, data storage and retrieval are considered. We expect these costs to come down considerably over the next few years as the technology improves and as new suppliers enter the market. The emergence of new suppliers will also bring forth new features, such as live-streaming cams.

Benefits of Police Body Cameras

Following is a list of the advantages for both cops and citizens:

  • Recording interactions with residents is likely to minimize complaints about police officer behavior and the unnecessary use of force, because interactions are captured for everyone to see. Both officers and citizens may tend to be more restrained, knowing that their words and actions are being captured.
  • Use of the cam while on-duty provides hard video evidence of decisions made by officers in high intensity situations. The footage is extremely valuable in piecing together what actually happened.
  • Video recorded by body cams helps protect police officers and citizens against false accusations, claims of misconduct, or abuse.
  • Increases transparency and accountability of officers.
  • May help prevent and de-escalate confrontational situations between officers and civilians.
  • May help provide valuable evidence in obtaining accurate witness and victim statements.
  • Video footage captured may help speed up court proceedings by providing indisputable proof of situations. This may lead to a reduction in court expenses due to an increase in pre-trial plea bargains or possibly an increased rate of convictions.

Cons, Disadvantages and concerns related to police body cameras

Following is a partial list of the cons, disadvantages, concerns and arguments against using body cameras:

  • According to early versions of policies governing their use, law enforcement officers must physically activate the camera when they exit their patrol car. The recording equipment must be manually activated when interacting with civilians or recording statements during investigations. However, officers decide when to activate the camera, and for how long the footage is stored, and if and when should it be made accessible to public. For example, the camera can be deactivated when interviewing a victim of sexual assault, to maintain the victim’s privacy.
  • Privacy issues are of concern for both cops and civilians. How to deal with those concerns is still being evaluated.
  • Another negative is the use of body cameras may prevent people from coming forward as credible witnesses to help assist with investigations, due to fear of retaliation or fear of public exposure.
  • Another con is that technological issues related to the cameras may prevent proper functioning at times. This could be due to a dead battery, damaged components, obstructed lens, and other problems. This could result in personnel missing important witness statements or crucial behavior by officers or citizens.
  • The equipment is expensive. Potential costs involved in their use include the cost of the device itself, ongoing maintenance, and costs associated with storing and maintain the video footage and recorded data that is collected. Storage costs and decisions about who should have access are some of the most hotly debated issues. In addition, costs would be associated with cataloging and retrieving footage in response to subpoenas, investigations and public information requests.

After looking at both the advantages and disadvantages, it becomes apparent that the pros of using the devices outweigh the cons. Given the recent officer-involved shootings and brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, South Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland, we are likely to see departments quickly begin adopting their use. The issue whether police officers should wear body cameras is the subject of ongoing debate by public officials, city governments and even members of Congress.

Buy Police Body Cameras

If you are interested in buying police body cameras and want to know how much they cost, check out the companies listed below. There are many other equipment manufacturers and distributors. Following is a list of providers:

Amazon.com – Amazon.com offers an extensive collection of body cams and are probably the easiest place to buy from. However, they are not an official supplier to police departments. Check out Amazon’s selection. Prices range from $100 to $400.

CopsPlus.com – CopsPlus.com offers the PFB1000 1080p Prima Facie 32 GB Body Camera. This unit clips directly on to the officer’s uniform and allows them to record footage in high-definition. This camera offers 32MB of memory storage. When we last checked, these ran about $730 per unit.

L3 Mobile Vision, Inc. – L3 provides a body worn product called BodyVision. BodyVision allows officers to easily and quickly download data and captured video, manage devices and search by case. They offer software and cloud-based options. This particular solution provides five hours of high definition recording capability and has a 72° field of view. Search captured clips by date, car, officer, and more. The company also has a number of other excellent solutions, such as: systems for cars and motorcycles, tablets, license plate recognition tools and digital evidence management solutions.

OfficerStore.com – The Office Store offers an extensive library of products for law enforcement. They have a wide selection of body-worn cameras and all of the necessary accessories such as batteries, chargers, protective lenses, cables, docking stations, mounting equipment, software and more.

Typical Features

Following are some of the features you’ll find on the most popular packages:

  • Audio Quality – The system should be able to capture conversational speech at a distance of three feet.
  • Cables – for connecting to charge and to computer or tablet for viewing recorded video
  • Chargers – Used to recharge the batteries
  • Docking station – Used to dock and charge multiple sets
  • Microphone – Two-way microphone captures clear audio to ensure voices and clearly records other sounds.
  • Mounting equipment – Used to mount the equipment on the officers uniform or other location, such as clips or car mount tools
  • Night Vision – While not true night vision, many cams have infrared illumination capability which helps to automatically adjust for low light or night situations
  • Protective Lenses – These protect the lenses from physical damage or flying debris, and the weather.
  • Rechargeable Battery – Eliminates the need for constant changing of batteries.
  • Recording Format – Video and audio that is captured should export in a standard, non-proprietary format, so that it can be played using widely available software. Avoid models that output footage that can only play on vendor-specific software.
  • Resolution Settings – Various resolution settings allow recording in low or high definition, such as 480, 720, or 1080. Storage requirements increase as the resolution increases.
  • Start and Stop – Touch-and-go recording capabilities allow officers to quickly start and stop the cameras without any complicated procedures or steps to follow
  • Storage Capability – Memory storage capability varies depending on the model, similar to that of a video camera. Storage capability can be integrated on the device itself, or on removable memory cards.
  • Waterproof – Prevents damage in damp conditions and in the rain
  • Wide field of vision – Varies by equipment, usually up to 120 degree field of view

Related: Read how cops use Police Drones to conduct aerial surveillance and photography.

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