Police Body Cameras: Do They Reduce Complaints of Officer Misconduct?
In the techno-savvy age of the smart phone where almost anyone can record and share live events in real time, the question of on-duty police officers using body mounted cameras to capture incidents as they unfold has come under intense scrutiny. The practice of using body-worn cams is 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 the Camera
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.
Pros to Police Body Cameras
Following is a list of the advantages for both cops and citizens:
- The necessity to record every interaction with residents is bound 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.
- Video recorded by body cams protect any false accusations, misconduct, or abuse against officers.
- 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 or concerns to police body cameras
Following is a partial list of the cons and disadvantages:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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 is the subject of ongoing debate by public officials, city governments and even members of Congress.
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