While many associate the spark of the discussion around body-worn police cameras with Ferguson, Missouri, Los Angeles was the center of another August incident, where an unarmed black man was fatally shot in an altercation with police. The incident, which resulted in the death of Ezell Ford, fueled local protests and strained an already tense national atmosphere between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
California also led the nation in the number of police officers who were killed in the line of duty in 2014 -- fourteen, according to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
AB 66 -- one of 4 bills currently before the California Legislature dealing with this issue -- was introduced by Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and would prepare the state for broader implementation of body-worn police cameras. The technology is only a few years old, dating back to 2012 when these cameras made their debut in Rialto, California.In order to chart a clear path forward, according to Weber, AB 66 would “develop guidelines so that these cameras are both effective – given the public investment involved – and that they are not overly intrusive in the lives of everyday citizens.”
The Department of Justice’s Office on Community Oriented Policing Services released an extensive report on the matter in late 2014. The report cites a study on body-worn police cameras that found a 60 percent reduction in the number of use-of-force incidents when cameras were used.
The study also found that there was an “88 percent reduction in the number of citizen complaints between the year prior to camera implementation and the year following deployment.”
While these figures seem to suggest that the implementation of body-worn cameras can result in less tension between police officers and local residents, Weber is careful to point out the need for genuine bridge building between law enforcement agencies and minority communities:
“Although we are cautiously optimistic about the potential for increased safety and accountability of those operating and being recorded by body-worn cameras, we recognize that communities of color and law enforcement relations also need to establish better relations. The taskforce established by AB 66 is aimed at establishing guidelines for the use of body cameras in a way so that they do not worsen the situation. If they are to be used, they need to be used in a way that increases trust rather than undermine it further.” - Dr. Shirley Weber, Assembly District 79
Assemblymembers Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) and Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona) have introduced their own bills meant to mandate larger adoption of body-worn cameras by California police and provide the funds to do so. If Dr. Weber’s bill passes, a task force comprised of experts in the areas of civil liberties, police safety, body-camera technology, as well as community advocates will write the book on police body-camera use and best practices in California.A number of other states, including Washington state, Florida, Arizona, and Missouri, are headed down a similar path, but questions remain as to how such cameras can be used while protecting the privacy of both police officers and civilians.
Washington is a prime example of what can happen if privacy protections remain unaddressed. Dozens of police encounters have been posted on YouTube due to the state's Freedom of Information Act laws, which were written long before body-worn police cameras existed.
It’s easy to imagine the potential for video recordings to inadvertently reveal private, personal information. Police officers frequently respond to domestic disputes and the footage could reveal sensitive information, like the inside of someone’s home or the individuals involved.
For Weber, the best way to resolve these issues is a substantive discussion with everyone at the table:
“Having a continued frank dialogue around issues of public safety and race is monumentally important for California. We’ve started in the Legislature by revisiting sentencing guidelines that in practice target certain populations and looking at other factors contributing to their over-representation in our corrections and juvenile justice systems. Obviously, there is much more to do.” - Dr. Shirley Weber, Assembly District 79