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Study: Use-of-Force Incidents Drop Dramatically When Police Use Body-Worn Cameras

by David Yee, published

Law enforcement has more than 30 years of experience with recording interactions with the public via in-car cameras, but has much less practical experience with the newer concept of body-worn cameras.

Some European law enforcement agencies have embraced almost every imaginable form of video surveillance and recording for many years, while few municipalities within the United States have enough experience from which to draw conclusions.

Examining the positive and negative qualities of body-worn cameras -- as well as examining their future use -- is an important step in the debate over this method of recording encounters with the public.

Body-Worn Camera Successes

British law enforcement has used video recordings from a variety of sources to combat crime. As one of the earliest pioneers of body-worn cameras, they have over a decade of experience and have provided most of the early studies about their effectiveness.

As early as 2006, British prosecutors had seen an increase in convictions, a decrease in the cost of investigations, as well as an increase in confessions once the suspect was shown the video footage. Video footage hasn't been just for prosecution; it has also been used in Britain as a substantial tool for investigation.

For instance, after the 2011 London riots, the police posted numerous pictures (captured via cctv, in-car, and body-worn cameras) of rioters on social media and websites, and were able to identify and prosecute rioters and looters for specific crimes.

This method worked so well it was copied during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings to quickly identify the two suspects by using video captured by numerous sources.

In the United States, the Rialto California Police Department has been one of the primary testing grounds for the use of body-worn cameras. In one of the first major studies on body-worn cameras in the United States, the department had some amazing results.

During a 12-month experiment, 6,776 video files of 724 gigabytes of memory were captured and analyzed:

  • The pre-camera use of force by police was 250 percent higher than the trial period;
  • The pre-camera complaints against police officers were over 900 percent higher than the trial period;
  • The rate of police-initiated physical contact dropped from 23.5 percent to 0 percent;
  • A decreased usage of firearms and an increased usage of Tasers (non-lethal weapons) by police.

The Rialto study definitely highlights body-worn cameras in the best way possible, but unfortunately things don't always turn out this well.

When Body-Worn Cameras Fail

The ACLU has long been against the expansion of video surveillance among police departments, but is for the integration of body-worn cameras. From their position, the potential benefits for protecting both the public and the police outweigh the potential risks -- but they do have some caveats:

  • Police should not have control over when the camera is on or off, or that the camera shouldn't "accidentally" turn itself off due to design.
  • Significant safeguards need to be employed in handling and storing the video recordings.
  • Strong public discussion and legislation should be in place pertaining to the privacy of video recordings.

Cameras being off at critical moments is a very real and substantial concern. Take, for instance, the case of Officer Jeremy Dear, a former police officer with the Albuquerque Police Department. Dear had a history of a malfunctioning camera not recording the events in important cases, including the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old woman.

Dear asserted that the camera, a lapel-design body-worn camera, had a

flawed design -- it was intentionally designed to disconnect cables when the unit was stressed to protect officers from being strangled by the cable. Critics, including the police department's own investigation, contended that the design was being advantageously used by officers not wanting their actions recorded.

Safeguards in handling video recordings should be the same as the handling procedures of all critical evidence. Isolated mistakes can and do happen with even the best procedures, but instances of systemic problems is not uncommon when it comes to video recordings.

Take the case of the Seattle Police Department, which claims to have "lost" tens of thousands of police video recordings.

Washington currently has a three-year retention requirement for all police recordings, which should be more than sufficient to protect the public from police abuses. But what good is a retention requirement when the evidence is "lost"?

The privacy of the video recording is a major concern. Most first-generation body-worn cameras record in standard video formats, making the video very easy to copy, replay, or even post to sites such as YouTube.

It becomes far too easy, as well as too much of a temptation, for department employees to copy recordings for personal use and amusement. An encrypted format that is difficult to copy is critical to ensure privacy.

The Killing of Eric Garner

The video-recorded killing of Eric Garner by New York police is fueling an argument of "why bother?" when it comes to employing body-worn cameras.

The answer is very simple: Any civilian recording of a police altercation will never show as much detail as a police body-worn camera.

From the time police are called to the scene, they have facts about the suspect that will dictate their reaction. Was the person a known offender? What was the original complaint about? What transpired before the citizen's camera started rolling?

The recording of Eric Garner's death catches only the last several minutes of the altercation, and only after it had escalated into a full shouting confrontation.

Without getting into the debate of whether Officer Daniel Pantaleo should have been indicted, a continuous record from the first moment of contact would have shed greater light on this case. Perhaps it would have supported the grand jury's decision -- but then again, perhaps it would have supported Pantaleo's indictment.

Future versions of body-worn cameras address many of the concerns about the ability to provide a continuous, tamper-proof record.

The Next Generation of Body-Worn Cameras

To combat the problems of the first generation body-worn cameras, companies like Utility have made extensive upgrades in the second generation devices.

Addressing problems that were happening in the field, these second generation devices include features like:

  • Recording that is triggered automatically
  • Records in high definition
  • Has the ability to live stream video to supervisors or dispatchers
  • Cannot be turned off during an incident
  • Contains an integrated GPS to specifically locate where the video was taken
  • Automatically uploads video to cloud storage.
  • Records in a secure video format that cannot be uploaded to social media
  • All contained in a small, almost indestructible "black box" recorder

Too often when we discuss body-worn cameras in the public arena, we talk about devices with first generation failures, and don't take into account that the industry is constantly upgrading these devices to provide better equipment and service to law enforcement and the public.

These newer systems would have totally eliminated the problems that happened in the Albuquerque and Seattle police departments. The effectiveness of body-worn cameras shouldn't be discounted based on the weaknesses of earlier models.

In The End, It's What Happens to the Video That Matters

No amount of recorded footage helps the public if it isn't used in a meaningful way. There is going to be an immense amount of government spending on this project, and that spending needs to be justified, especially in the minds of the taxpayers who are seeking this technology for public safety.

When crimes happen on video, they should be prosecuted. Likewise, when abuses happen, they need to be adequately and justly punished as well.

Equipping law enforcement with body-worn cameras places the burden on departments and prosecutors to justly use all evidence that is provided. Because if this evidence isn't used justly and equally, it only fuels suspicion and distrust against the system.

Photo Source: AP

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