The controversial shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has raised a call across the country for police officers to be equipped with body cameras. These devices, proponents say, would provide an unbiased accounting of law enforcement interaction with citizenry, erasing, for example, the questions that now plague the Missouri police force in unraveling the mystery of exactly what led to the unarmed teenager’s shooting by a police officer. Opponents, on the other hand, raise concerns about privacy and human error when saying widespread use of body cameras should be approached with extreme care.
What those on both sides of the debate might not realize is that the body camera issue is one that has been under exploration for some time. A number of studies focusing on the practice have revealed compelling pros and cons related to their use, along with strong precautions for agencies to carefully consider policies in regard to use before equipping officers carte blanche.
Perhaps one of the strongest arguments that proponents in this debate have on their side is that body cameras provide a sense of accountability for both police officers and the citizens they interact with. If encounters are being recorded for future review – and potential evidence – both sides are more likely to put on their best behavior, proponents say.
With regard to law enforcement behavior, studies seem to give credence to the notion that accountability for police officers does have an impact on interactions. Police Foundation Executive Fellow Chief Tony Farrar conducted a yearlong study on the use of body cameras. With cooperation from the police department in Rialto, California, Farrar was able to delve deep into the issue. His findings suggest that use-of-force incidents dropped by more than 50% when cameras were put into action. The number of citizens’ complaints during the yearlong study also dropped dramatically.
Privacy: A Slippery Slope
Though accountability, improved behavior and a drop in citizen complaints are compelling reasons for law enforcement agencies to adopt the use of cameras, there are some potential pitfalls to such programs. Privacy concerns are among the most widely cited.
As body camera use becomes more widespread, several concerns become more apparent:
- Video for entertainment value – As more agencies record their officers’ actions in the field, websites are popping up that publish all recordings for mere entertainment value of viewers, and perhaps the site owners’ personal financial gains.
- Ability to field public records requests – A new YouTube account that publishes all recordings from law enforcement agencies is bogging down police public records requests. Back in September, “Police Video Requests” asked the Poulsbo Police Department in Washington for every second of footage its officers shot. That request could take up to three years to fill, the department estimates.
- Trust – Some agencies themselves have also raised concerns about the use of cameras possibly interfering with open, legitimate exchanges during complicated encounters. Victims of domestic violence, for example, might be less willing to speak with candor to investigating officers if they know cameras are rolling.
Though the use of body cameras delivers some compelling benefits for law enforcement agencies, the pitfalls associated with privacy loss bear serious consideration, experts warn. Clear policies about when cameras should roll, and when they should be shut off, should be established, they say. A federal report also urges agencies to adopt straightforward policies on the length of time routine recordings should be archived before deletion.
As cameras present both strong pros and potentially sticky cons, the general consensus seems to be that adoption of use should be handled with care.