Should police officers wear body cameras?
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. 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. 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. 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). 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; and a study on the Isle of Wight, UK, found a 36% decrease in assaults on police when officers were wearing cameras.
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. 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. 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%. In Phoenix, AZ, allegations of police misconduct found to be true decreased 53.1% after the deployment of body cameras.
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.” A YouGov poll found that 92% of Americans support police body cameras with 55% willing to pay more in taxes to equip local police. 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.”
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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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. In Philadelphia, a four-year deal to equip a department of over 4,000 officers cost $12.5 million. Police departments in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah have suspended body-worn camera programs citing rising costs. 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. 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.
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