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Body-Worn Cameras May Solve More Problems Than They Raise

In wake of recent high-profile police shootings, President Obama announced a $263 million proposal for the funding of body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies across the country.

The concept of using video recording devices in law enforcement is a very old idea. As early as the 1960s, departments toyed with the idea of installing cameras in squad cars, which at that time took up the entire front passenger area and half of the trunk for battery cells.

Video technology has come a long way since the 1960s — high definition cameras can now be concealed in everyday objects and draw power from very small and light batteries.

Modern availability of small, lightweight cameras has created a renewed interest in expanding the role of video cameras in law enforcement, especially the use of body cameras.

The movement to “arm” the police with body cameras has both critics and proponents, with issues ranging from civil liberties to police accountability and safety.

History of Police Camera Usage

According to a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, it was the efforts of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the 1980s that led to the widespread use of cameras in squad cars.

In 1980, when MADD was formed, there were 21,000 drunk driving fatalities each year on America’s roads. MADD’s focus was two-pronged. First, they had impressive nationwide PSA campaigns about the dangers of drunk driving. Second, they lobbied for stronger drunk driving laws and more aggressive prosecution.

It was found that many drunk driving cases were won by defendants because of the lack of evidence– especially evidence of why the person was initially stopped by the police. Convictions were substantially higher in areas where in-car cameras were used because the camera recorded every detail, including the initial contact, field sobriety testing, and the arrest.

MADD sponsored numerous community fundraising efforts to pay for the installation of in-car cameras in local police forces nationwide. Within 10 years, the group’s efforts cut drunk driving fatalities by one-third, proving the worth of the enforcement model.

By the 1990s, RICO laws were being used against dealers and minor drug trafficking smugglers (or “mules”). Once again, in-car cameras made a significant impact.

In particular, juries would often have a hard time believing that a person with large amounts of drugs in their vehicle would submit to a voluntary search; yet time and time again the video cameras would show just that. The asset seizures under the RICO laws further funded the police forces and increased the usage of in-car cameras.

Though becoming more common, in-car cameras were still not a universal feature in law enforcement by the year 2000. While some departments had completely embraced the concept, others had yet to investigate its usage at all.

The 2000s were marked by several highly publicized racial profiling cases. Major cases like Daniels, et al. v. the City of New York placed the burden of proof on the police departments to prove that they were not engaging in racial profiling.

This onus motivated many more police departments to employ in-car cameras, primarily because the traffic stop was often at the very center of racial profiling complaints.

Currently, over 72 percent of all state and local police vehicles are equipped with in-car cameras — including nearly all traffic control vehicles. That is, nearly all police vehicles that come into contact with the public are equipped with in-car cameras.

The outcome of increased in-car camera usage has been:

  • Increased police safety
  • Better liability control for police agencies
  • Better training and evaluation
  • Higher conviction rates, fewer plea bargains
  • Better professionalism and conduct

In particular to current events:

  • Over half of all police complaints are dropped when the event has been recorded
  • Of the half that proceed, the police officer is exonerated 83 percent of the time when the event has been recorded.

It would seem that such successes would encourage departments to expand into body camera usage. However, this expansion comes at a bit of a cost.

Double-Edged Sword

In psychology, there is a known experiment phenomenon termed the Hawthorne Effect. In simple terms, a person acts differently when they know they are being observed, often presenting themselves in the best possible manner (or what they perceive as the best possible manner) while being observed.

This is the intended effect when using video cameras to combat abuses in policing — and it works.

The flip-side of course is that everyone in contact with the police wearing a body camera is going to suffer from the same effect, which can be both good and bad. It’s good in that it tends to lower adversarial and aggressive behaviors toward the police.

It’s bad in that it also lowers cooperation with police during investigations and interviews. People are far less likely to give honest and direct answers when they know they are being recorded, and are more likely to remain silent.

Since everything recorded by the camera is admissible evidence, in many jurisdictions it becomes part of the open public record.

As one police chief in Tennessee stated, “As we enter a home and we’ve got that video rolling, we are now rolling on everything that goes on inside that home. The question then becomes do we want that video available to everyone in our community.”

Police respond to a variety of calls that place them inside people’s homes, from criminal complaints to health emergencies — definitely a very large difference between the types of calls.

Some advocate having the ability to turn the camera on and off, but this only defeats the entire purpose of creating a continuous record. One thing is for sure, a significant public and legal debate needs to take place on the range and scope of such recordings.

Economic Feasibility

President Obama’s announcement was for funding the purchase of 50,000 units. Considering that there are over 1 million law enforcement personnel in the nation with the power of arrest, the total cost for full implementation could be in the billions of dollars.

People are far less likely to give honest and direct answers when they know they are being recorded.
David Yee, IVN contributor
It took almost 30 years for in-car cameras to become universal in law enforcement, with much of the funding coming from private grants and fundraising.

As with any government expenditure, cost is always one of the biggest concerns. But in many ways, the costs are already being paid in the form of settlements in police misconduct suits.

According to the Washington Post, cities are paying out millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees in cases of police abuses each year. Chicago alone paid out $500 million in settlements over the last decade.

One of two things needs to happen: either law enforcement needs better training and supervision or departments need a better way of defending themselves against frivolous suits.

The addition of body cameras might be the best answer to both problems.

No photo credit attributed.