Police Body Cameras: Top 3 Pros and Cons

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North Charleston police officer with body-worn camera.
Source: North Charleston Police Department, “National Night Out,” flickr.com, Aug. 1, 2017
Police body cameras are small cameras, often worn on an officer’s chest or head, with a microphone to capture sound and internal data storage to save footage for later review.

Police body cameras are in use around the world from Australia to Uruguay. [19][32] They were first trialed in the United States in 2012 in Rialto, CA. [1][2][5] In 2015, in response to the number of high profile shootings of unarmed black men by police officers, President Obama pledged funding for a nationwide program to equip departments with body cameras. [19] Law enforcement agencies in 45 states and DC have received funding from the Department of Justice’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, which spent over $58 million between 2015 and 2017. [6] 35 states have introduced specific legislation covering their use, [4] and a study prepared for the National Institute of Justice found that there are over 60 models of police body cameras available to purchase in the United States. [3]

Proponents of the police use of body cameras say that the cameras create transparency and accountability and reduce police – and anti-police – violence. They also say that body cameras provide evidence that proves or disproves police misconduct allegations; and that they are a good tool for police training and have strong support from the public. Opponents of the police use of body cameras say that the cameras negatively affect the physical and mental health of officers by overburdening them with equipment and placing them under the stress of constant video surveillance. They say that they increase the risk that sensitive or vulnerable victims and witnesses of crimes are exposed, and that their use damages community trust. They also say that they are too expensive and unreliable.

 

 

Should police officers wear body cameras?

Pro 1

Police body cameras increase the safety of the public and the police.

People act differently when they know they are being filmed – police body cameras can encourage good behavior by police officers and members of the public, leading to a decrease in violence, use of force incidents, and attacks on officers on duty. [7] A study in Rialto, CA, the first US city to trial police body cameras, found an over 50% reduction in the total number of use of force incidents by police officers when body cameras were worn; complaints against officers fell from 28 in the year prior to the study to 3 during the year of the trial. [7] In Las Vegas, NV, a trial found a 37% reduction in the number of police officers involved in at least one use of force incident when equipped with body-worn cameras. [8] In San Diego, CA, use of body cameras coincided with a 16.4% decrease in high-level use of force (Tasers, pepper spray, firearms) and a 25.3% increase in low-level use of force (controlled holds and Taser warnings). [11] A pilot program in Edmonton, Canada, found that 35% of officers with body-worn cameras observed a decrease in instances of physical aggression by members of the public; [9] and a study on the Isle of Wight, UK, found a 36% decrease in assaults on police when officers were wearing cameras. [10]

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Pro 2

Police body cameras improve police accountability and protect officers from false accusations of misconduct.

Police body cameras provide visual and audio evidence that can independently verify what happened in any given situation. In Texas, a police officer was fired and charged with murder after body-worn camera footage emerged which contradicted his initial statement in the shooting of an unarmed youth. [12] In Baltimore, MD, a police officer was suspended and two colleagues placed on leave after being caught on their body-worn cameras planting fake evidence at a crime scene. [14] In San Diego, CA, the use of body cameras provided the necessary evidence to exonerate police officers falsely accused of misconduct – the number of severe misconduct allegations deemed false increased 2.4%, and the number of officers exonerated for less severe allegations related to conduct, courtesy, procedure, and service increased 6.5%. [11] In Phoenix, AZ, allegations of police misconduct found to be true decreased 53.1% after the deployment of body cameras. [13]

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Pro 3

Police body cameras are a good tool for learning and have strong support from members of the public.

Video recorded from police body cameras can be used to train new and existing officers in how to perform during difficult encounters with the public. The Miami Police Department has been using body cameras for training since 2012. Police Major Ian Moffitt says, “we can record a situation, a scenario in training, and then go back and look at it and show the student, the recruit, the officer what they did good, what they did bad, and [what they can] improve on.” [17] A YouGov poll found that 92% of Americans support police body cameras with 55% willing to pay more in taxes to equip local police. [16] A Public Attitude Survey in London, UK, found that members of the public are generally in favor of the use of body-worn cameras with 92% agreeing that the cameras would “make officers more accountable,” 90% agreeing that cameras “would ensure officers act within the law,” and 87% agreeing that cameras would “reassure them the police will do the right thing.” [15]

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Con 1

Police body cameras decrease the safety of police officers and negatively affect their physical and mental health.

Some people respond negatively – even violently – to being filmed by police, especially people who may be drunk, on drugs, or suffering from mental health problems. A study published in the European Journal of Criminology found that assaults on police officers were 14% higher when body cameras were in use. [18] University of Oklahoma Professor of Law Stephen E. Henderson, JD, says that the use of police body cameras can be psychologically damaging to police officers as “nobody does well under constant surveillance.” [21] Pat Lynch, head of the NYPD’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), says that, “there is simply no need to equip patrol officers with body cams… Our members are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods [gas masks], Mace, flashlights, memo books, ASPs [batons], radio, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it.” [17] A report by the UK Home Office noted potential health and safety issues with the use of body-worn cameras including head or neck injuries, electric shock from damaged equipment, and radio failure if cameras and radios were used in close proximity to each other. [20]

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Con 2

Police body cameras invade the privacy of citizens, expose victims and witnesses of crimes, and damage police-public relationships.

Recording police-public encounters can lead to the public exposure of private medical conditions, victims of crimes such as rape or domestic abuse, witnesses who fear reprisal from criminals, and informants – especially in states which have laws allowing public access to the footage. [17][19][31][34] Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub notes that “every day we are exposing persons challenged by mental illness, autism, developmental disabilities, addiction, etc. We are creating and making public recordings of their illness and potentially creating life-long consequences.” [22] Chief of Police Ken Miller of Greensboro, North Carolina says that if citizens “think that they are going to be recorded every time they talk to an officer, regardless of the context, it is going to damage openness and create barriers to important relationships.” [23] A study in Edmonton, Canada, found that potential witnesses were reluctant to talk in the presence of a body-worn camera, even when the device was switched off. [9]

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Con 3

Police body cameras are too expensive and are unreliable.

Equipping police departments with body cameras is extremely expensive as forces have to budget not only for the camera but also for ancillary equipment, training, data storage facilities, extra staff to manage the video data, and maintenance costs. [26] To equip the Bakersfield Police Department, a force of 200 officers, would cost an estimated $440,000 in the first year, and $240,000 in subsequent years. [24] In Philadelphia, a four-year deal to equip a department of over 4,000 officers cost $12.5 million. [25] Police departments in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah have suspended body-worn camera programs citing rising costs. [27][28][29][30] A trial in Edmonton, CA, found that body-worn cameras had an insufficient battery length for every day policing, especially in cold weather where battery life diminished more quickly. [9] A sheriff’s office in Virginia has stopped using body cameras due to the unreliability of their on-off buttons and poor integration with their IT systems. [31]

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Footnotes:

  1. Associated Press, “Britain Straps Video Cameras to Police Helmets,” nbcnews.com, July 13, 2007
  2. Rory Carroll, “California Police Use of Body Cameras Cuts Violence and Complaints,” theguardian.com, Nov. 4, 2013
  3. Vivian Hung, et al., “A Market Survey on Body Worn Camera Technologies,” ncjrs.gov, Nov. 2016
  4. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Body-Worn Camera Laws Database,” ncsl.org, Oct. 27, 2017
  5. Total Security Solutions, “Police Body Camera Basics, Part 1,” tssbulletproof.com, Sep. 14, 2015
  6. US Department of Justice, “BWC Program Update: Fiscal Year 2017,” bja.gov, 2017
  7. Tony Farrar, “Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially-Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-Of-Force,” policefoundation.org, Mar. 2013
  8. University of Nevada at Las Vegas, “Study: Police Body-worn Cameras Reduce Reports of Misconduct, Use of Force,” forensicmag.com, Nov. 30, 2017
  9. Edmonton Police Service, “Body Worn Video: Considering the Evidence,” www.bwvsg.com, June 2015
  10. Tom Ellis, et al., “Evaluation of the Introduction of Personal Issue Body Worn Video Cameras (Operation Hyperion) on the Isle of Wight: Final Report to Hampshire Constabulary,” researchportal.port.ac.uk, Feb. 2015
  11. David Garrick, “Report: SDPD Body Cameras Reducing Misconduct, Aggressive Use of Force,” sandiegotribune.com, Feb. 9, 2017
  12. Maya Wiley, “Body Cameras Help Everyone – Including the Police,” time.com, May 9, 2017
  13. Charles M. Katz, et al., “Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix Police Department,” asu.edu, Dec. 2014
  14. PBS SoCal, “Three Police Misconduct Cases – All Involving Body Cameras – Had New Developments This Week. Here’s What Happened,” pbs.org, Aug. 11, 2017
  15. Lynne Grossmith, “Police, Camera, Evidence: London’s Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial of Body Worn Video,” college.police.ac.uk, Nov. 2015
  16. Emily Ekins, “Cato/YouGov Poll: 92% Support Police Body Cameras, 55% Willing to Pay More in Taxes to Equip Local Police,” cato.org, Jan. 5, 2016
  17. Michael D. White, “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence,” nicic.gov, 2014
  18. Barak Ariel, et al., “Wearing Body Cameras Increases Assaults against Officers and Does Not Reduce Police Use of Force: Results from a Global Multi-Site Experiment,” sagepub.com, 2016
  19. Emmeline Taylor, “Lights, Camera, Redaction… Police Body-Worn Cameras: Autonomy, Discretion and Accountability,” queensu.ca, 2016
  20. Home Office (UK), “Guidance for the Police Use of Body-Worn Video Devices,” college.police.ac.uk, July 2007
  21. Stephen Henderson, “Fourth Amendment Time Machines (and What They Might Say about Police Body Cameras),” upenn.edu, 2016
  22. Nancy La Vigne, “Evaluating the Impact of Police Body Cameras,” urban.org, Aug. 5, 2015
  23. Lindsay Miller, et al., “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” policeforum.org, 2014
  24. Jason Kotowski, “Money, Storage Primary Obstacles in Police Body Camera Implementation,” govtech.com, Mar. 8, 2016
  25. Bobby Allyn, “Philly Reaches $12.5m Deal with Taser Maker for Police Body Cameras,” whyy.org, Oct. 23, 2017
  26. National Institute of Justice, “Research on Body-Worn Cameras and Law Enforcement,” nij.gov, Dec. 5, 2017
  27. Laura Giles, “Pleasant Grove Officers Forced to Stop Using Body Cameras,” heraldextra.com, Sep. 30, 2016
  28. Rick Callahan, “Why Two Police Departments Stopped Using Body Cameras,” csmonitor.com, Sep. 10, 2016
  29. Nichole Mann, “Police Department Stops Using Body Cameras after Legislation,” journalstar.com, Jan. 15, 2017
  30. Benjamin Yount, “Costs Pushing Some Police Departments to Stop Using Body Cameras,” effinghamradio.com, Sep. 25, 2017
  31. Jason Shueh, “After Endless Glitches, Montgomery County Shelves Police Body Cameras,” statescoop.com, Nov. 28, 2017
  32. Reveal Media, “Uruguay Police Partner with Reveal in South America’s First Major Body Worn Video Study,” revealmedia.com, July 12, 2016
  33. Matt Pearce, “Growing Use of Police Body Cameras Raises Privacy Concerns,” latimes.com, Sep. 27, 2014
  34. Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, “Access to Police Body-Worn Camera Video,” rcfp.org (accessed May 23, 2018)