Police Perspective: The Pros & Cons of Police Body Cameras
By Will Erstad on 01/25/2016
It’s been a tumultuous and difficult environment for police officers in the U.S. as of late. Fair or not, a handful of incidents have left many in America deeply skeptical of law enforcement procedures and how officers handle potentially contentious situations.
One of the proposed solutions to this issue is to equip police officers with body cameras. To some, this sounds like a slam dunk; but others have reservations. To help understand the dispute, we enlisted some law enforcement experts to weigh in on the pros and cons of police body cameras.
Advantages of police body cameras
A clear picture
While mounted police cameras can’t pick up on absolutely everything an officer sees, the video obtained from these cameras can help paint a much clearer picture of what happened in an incident. Police reports, especially in complex situations, can be hard for juries to interpret or visualize. Video evidence removes a lot of that uncertainty.
“When it comes to times where you can use that video as direct evidence, I think it certainly tells a tall message,” says Bobby Kipper, former police officer and founder of the National Center for the Prevention of Community Violence .
As a general rule of thumb, people tend to behave better when they know they’re being watched. But that’s not to say this is just a check on over-zealous or aggressive police behavior. Citizens who know they are being filmed are less likely to act aggressively as well, as the video removes any opportunity for disputing their behavior.
“All it takes is that first complaint from someone to be resolved by this footage to really start getting officers to buy-in,” says Steve Tuttle of TASER International, one of the world’s largest body camera producers. “This becomes their legal ‘body armor.’”
Another benefit from these videos is that it allows officers to self-evaluate and find opportunities to improve how they handle a situation. Tuttle says it’s somewhat similar to seeing yourself interviewed on TV for the first time. You’ll probably cringe a little as you assess your performance, but it can serve as a learning opportunity and motivator.
They’re relatively unobtrusive
Police officers are responsible for a lot of equipment, and while some might bristle at the thought of adding more to the list, the cameras used for law enforcement are not bulky or particularly burdensome. But the smallest cameras are about the size of a tube of lipstick and can be mounted in a variety of locations on an officer’s body. Altogether the camera and battery pack weigh just less than a quarter of a pound.
Reduction in complaints & related expenses
Early results from agencies using body cameras appear to be positive. A study performed by the Rialto, CA police department found that the cameras led to an 87.5 percent decrease in officer complaints as well as a 59 percent reduction in use of force over the course of a year—and they’re not the only departments seeing positive results.
This drop in complaints can also lead to a substantial decrease in the time and resources devoted to investigating complaints and resolving civil litigation. These cameras could also present an opportunity for police departments to highlight the everyday good officers do as well as give the public a better idea of what the day to day life of a police officer is really like.
Cons of police body cameras
It’s no secret a lot of state budgets have been squeezed since the latest economic downturn, and this may make the price tag for implementing body camera systems unrealistic for some law enforcement agencies. The cameras offered by Tuttle’s company range in price from $399-$599 per unit.
Kipper says the expense needs to be taken into account for those who push for immediate adoption of body cameras.
“These cameras can be a costly initiative for communities who haven’t planned for this,” Kipper explains. “A lot of these departments are under a tight budget already.”
“People in the community need to understand that they’re on candid camera, literally, with law enforcement present,” Kipper says. “Are they going to be okay with being filmed when things aren’t going well?”
Police body cameras do raise some substantial privacy issues. The nature of police work has officers interacting with citizens during their most vulnerable moments. For example, would you feel comfortable knowing anyone could request to view video of an incident that occurred within your home? Or footage of you if you’ve been the victim of a crime? Will officers have the discretion to turn off the camera in sensitive or potentially dangerous situations?
Departments will need to work with advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to develop policies that balance citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights with the public’s desire for transparency.
Storage of evidence
Traditionally, evidence is collected, labeled and physically stored under lock and key. But digital video storage adds another layer of complexity that some law enforcement agencies may struggle to manage. While agencies may save time collecting, organizing and tracking digital photographic evidence, video requires an additional investment in either storage hardware or cloud-based storage systems.
Tuttle says the issue is about more than just having a place to house the video.
“It’s important to consider chain of custody—once you have the video can you take it to court? Can you prove where it’s been or whether it’s been altered from the original?” Tuttle asks. These are legitimate concerns that cause some to question the use of police body cameras.
Too much too fast?
“If you’ve been doing your job one way for 10, 15 even 20 years and now someone tells you to do it differently—it’s uncomfortable,” Tuttle says. “Whether you’re a pro or a novice, change is always going to present a challenge.”
The change in how police officers operate will likely provide some initial friction; a problem which Kipper says could be magnified if departments rush in too quickly in the face of public pressure. Policies need to be developed, training needs to take place and funding needs to be secured.
“It’s a big process that doesn’t just happen overnight,” Kipper says.
The final verdict
The American public, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, seems to be in favor of law enforcement adopting body cameras. There are certainly valid concerns regarding how this technology will be implemented, but the strong support shown for these cameras seems to indicate it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll be implemented. Departments will have to overcome the challenges presented here, but these cameras also provide an opportunity for police to strengthen the relationships they have with the communities they serve.
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