Since body cameras began gaining momentum in law enforcement, the main arguments for and against them (respectively) have been that they hold everyone accountable and raise privacy concerns — for both the public and the officers who use them.
But there are many less publicized benefits of body cameras that far outweigh the issues privacy raises. In a study conducted by PERF with support from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS), benefits which affected both police and the public
Body cameras document everything from encounters with witnesses, suspects, and victims, to the crime scene, interviews, interrogations, and even arrests — making cases that are typically difficult to prosecute, more probable.
A landmark study recently released by the D.C. Metropolitan Police found that officers who wore cameras behaved in essentially the same ways as officers who did not. The presence of cameras had no statistically significant impact on how often officers used force or on how many misconduct complaints the city received.
The results raise an important question: If these benefits have not emerged, could the other claimed benefits of body-worn cameras — increased transparency, accountability and trust — also be false promises?
So far, there’s little evidence to suggest that department-owned, officer-operated cameras will lead to any meaningful improvements. To the contrary, a tool that’s viewed by some as one that can protect black lives is actually one that mainly helps those in blue.
Departments nationwide have flocked to body-worn cameras as a fashionable and almost reflexive reform. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that body-worn cameras are not some magical turnkey response to police brutality. In the years since Ferguson, how many officers have actually been held accountable for their actions — either fired, or in more severe cases indicted and convicted — because of body-worn camera footage?
Cons of police body cameras:
It’s no secret a lot of state budgets have been squeezed since the latest economic downturn, and this may make the price tag for implementing body camera systems unrealistic for some law enforcement agencies. The cameras offered by Tuttle’s company range in price from $399-$599 per unit.
Kipper says the expense needs to be taken into account for those who push for immediate adoption of body cameras.
“These cameras can be a costly initiative for communities who haven’t planned for this,” Kipper explains. “A lot of these departments are under a tight budget already.”
“People in the community need to understand that they’re on candid camera, literally, with law enforcement present,” Kipper says. “Are they going to be okay with being filmed when things aren’t going well?”
Police body cameras do raise some substantial privacy issues. The nature of police work has officers interacting with citizens during their most vulnerable moments. For example, would you feel comfortable knowing anyone could request to view video of an incident that occurred within your home? Or footage of you if you’ve been the victim of a crime? Will officers have the discretion to turn off the camera in sensitive or potentially dangerous situations?
Departments will need to work with advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to develop policies that balance citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights with the public’s desire for transparency.
Storage of evidence
Traditionally, evidence is collected, labeled and physically stored under lock and key. But digital video storage adds another layer of complexity that some law enforcement agencies may struggle to manage. While agencies may save time collecting, organizing and tracking digital photographic evidence, video requires an additional investment in either storage hardware or cloud-based storage systems.
Tuttle says the issue is about more than just having a place to house the video.
“It’s important to consider chain of custody—once you have the video can you take it to court? Can you prove where it’s been or whether it’s been altered from the original?” Tuttle asks. These are legitimate concerns that cause some to question the use of police body cameras.
Too much too fast?
“If you’ve been doing your job one way for 10, 15 even 20 years and now someone tells you to do it differently—it’s uncomfortable,” Tuttle says. “Whether you’re a pro or a novice, change is always going to present a challenge.”
The change in how police officers operate will likely provide some initial friction; a problem which Kipper says could be magnified if departments rush in too quickly in the face of public pressure. Policies need to be developed, training needs to take place and funding needs to be secured.
“It’s a big process that doesn’t just happen overnight,” Kipper says.
The American public, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, seems to be in favour of law enforcement adopting body cameras. There are certainly valid concerns regarding how this technology will be implemented, but the strong support shown for these cameras seems to indicate it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll be implemented. Departments will have to overcome the challenges presented here, but these cameras also provide an opportunity for police to strengthen the relationships they have with the communities they serve.
officers who wear and operate body-worn cameras, and it’s the departments who own and control the recorded footage. Departments, often in negotiation with police unions, set the policies and procedures that guide the cameras’ use. So it should come as no surprise that body-worn camera policies around the country largely favour the interests of departments and their officers, often at the expense of the public’s interests.
In most major U.S. departments, there’s no easy way for the public to obtain body-worn camera footage, even (or perhaps especially) after high-profile uses of force.
The lack of transparency is further imbalanced by the fact that departments almost always allow their own officers to watch camera footage before they write their initial reports. This makes it easier for officers to act for the camera and potentially create false narratives about what truly happened, even after a serious use of force. This is a devious twist that could make it even harder to hold officers accountable.
Rather than bringing about accountability, we have long feared that body-worn cameras would instead further intensify law enforcement activities, especially in over-policed black and brown communities. Camera systems are surveillance systems, with cameras concentrated in places where officers choose to spend the most time. True to form, vendors are now seeking to incorporate face recognition capabilities into their camera systems, which would turn them into dangerous systems of mass surveillance.
Body-worn cameras — like all technologies — reflect the values of the people that build and control them. The sad reality is that these cameras mirror the power and the interests of the police, not those of the communities they are sworn to serve. Without deeper structural reforms together with real community oversight, we shouldn’t expect body-worn cameras to deliver any meaningful transparency or accountability.