A Political Crutch: Police-Worn Body Cameras.

Posted: February 12, 2015 by jakimitchinson in Policing's New Visibility, Uncategorized
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In the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, The President of the United States, Barack Obama, promoted the use of body-worn cameras on police officers (CBC, 2014). He called for a national reform of police accountability, and promised the citizens of the United States that body worn cameras would help mend the precarious relationship between police departments and communities. However, Obama’s grandiose promises have led the public to believe that body cameras are a “win-win” situation. The common belief is that they could hold police accountable for their actions and also protect cops who are falsely accused of wrongdoing. This blog post challenges the assumption that police-worn body cameras increase police accountability and protect officers.

Body worn cameras record interactions between law-enforcement officials and civilians. Some battery-operated cameras can be attached to an officer’s vest or helmet; others, which look like thick pens, can be connected to the arms of specially designed glasses. The recorded footage goes to a secure online server or a cloud-storage system that can only be viewed by verified administrators. The original footage cannot be deleted without approval from an administrator, and individual police departments can set their own policies regarding the management of the footage, including how long the footage is stored.

Developing official procedures to govern the use of cameras will be a tedious task. Officers should be required to have their cameras running during encounters with civilians, but will they be allowed to turn them off while they’re in their squad cars or engaging with informants who don’t want their identities revealed? Will civilians expectations of privacy be put in jeopardy by these cameras?

Another concern about these cameras is battery life. Some cameras only have a battery life of two hours, and it is possible that the cameras may not always be usable when police officers need them most. If an officer is tasked with turning the camera on and off throughout his/her shift, it may not always be feasible in emergency situations (which is typically when video footage of the incident would be most beneficial in investigations).

Furthermore, the majority of support for police-worn cameras has come from politicians and executives of companies that have a vested economic interest in this market. Time magazine published a long commentary regarding it’s support for the use of body-worn cameras, however most of the information of the article was cited back to the CEO of VIEVU, one of the largest wearable body-worn camera makers in the world (Gillespie, 2014).

Once all of the information regarding support for body-worn cameras has been sifted through, two prominent themes emerge:

1. To date, there’s a relatively small amount of empirical evidence to demonstrate that body-worn cameras improve police-civilian interactions. The first randomized controlled trial using body-worn-cameras was conducted in 2013 in Rialto, California,  across a 12 month time frame. The study focused specifically on use-of-force and citizens’ complaints, which were hypothesized to be affected by officers wearing cameras, given the possible deterrent effect of the devices on noncompliant behaviour (Ariel, Farra & Sutherland, 2014, p2). The research found a 50 percent reduction in the number of use-of-force incidents among officers wearing the cameras. Civilian complaints against police officers also dropped sharply, however the Rialto police department already generates minimal complaints in a typical year, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions. This study has been used as “evidence” for advocates of body cameras to the point of exhaustion. However, this is but one experiment and before this policy is considered more widely, police forces, governments and researchers should invest further time and effort in validating these findings with other research.

Below is a link to the full study:

http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/797/art%253A10.1007%252Fs10940-014-9236-3.pdf?auth66=1423606404_1aa4a3a1de45b41d77eda41e9871fda5&ext=.pdf

2. At this point, body-worn cameras are merely a part of politics. The vocal proponents of body cameras are mainly politicians, police chiefs and executives of body-camera companies. These groups require public approval and support to function, and because police accountability is a “hot topic” currently, advocating for body cameras on officers is simply being used as a public approval tactic. There is no consensus amongst researchers, the public nor police officers in regards to the approval or disapproval of such cameras because no sound evidence has been made available.  The only individuals and institutions adamantly pushing for these cameras are individuals who are attempting to capitalize on the emotional topic of police accountability.

Before billions of dollars are globally invested by governments and law enforcement agencies, an impartial research study must be performed, one that is not funded by any parties that have an economic interest in the results. Although the outcry for the use of body cameras has been extensively perpetuated by high profile police shootings, the public and state must come to a decision that is well-informed, and proves to be a decision for the greater good of the public and police agencies. A full impact assessment on the use of body-worn cameras must be conducted before adopting the use of them into police agencies.

Due to the two themes outline above, I cannot support the implementation of body-worn cameras on police officers. It would be irresponsible for myself, as a member of the academic community, to form an opinion without valid and reliable research to consider. For now, the state and law enforcement agencies should not economically invest in purchasing and implementing expensive programs without a more definitive and clear idea about the effectiveness of such cameras.

References

Ariel, B,. Farrar, W. A,. and Sutherland, A. (2014). The effect of police body-worn cameras on use of force and citizens’ complaints against the police: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
DOI 10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3

Gillespie, N. (2014). Make cops wear cameras. Time Magazine. http://time.com/3111377/ferguson-police-cameras/utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+timeblogs%2Flive+%28TIME%3A+Live+Blog%29

Obama calls for police body cameras after Ferguson shooting. Dec 1, 2014. The Associated Press.
http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/obama-calls-for-police-body-cameras-after-ferguson-shooting-1.2856941

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    Your post opens with a clear and compelling thesis. You provide an effective descriptive overview of the body camera technology (as it currently stands), and a concise discussion of some of the challenges arising from the application of this technology to everyday policing practice.

    I am interested in your commentary on the Rialto pilot study. this project has, as you state, been used as an example of the effectiveness of body cameras by many proponents of this technology. Would you support a pilot study involving a police service with a more conflicted relationship with the community it serves (ex. Montreal police – http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/freddie-james-s-racial-profiling-complaint-is-part-of-larger-issue-inside-montreal-police-force-1.2956262)? I think that a pre-post study in Vancouver or Surrey would be a valuable contribution to the debate.

    Your second argument, regarding the politics of body cameras, is also interesting. I’m not sure that it is fair to say that the body camera debate is ‘merely a part of politics’, though. All discussions of policing and police accountability are inherently political, as they involve matters of power, regulation, and control. Further, many grassroots organizations – whose interest in police accountability not newfound or fashionable, or grounded in an appeal to the emotions of a given moment – have supported the introduction of body cameras. You are absolutely right to urge caution and to question the view that body cameras are a panacea – but I think that it is important to avoid painting with too broad a brush when making sense of the politics of this debate.

    Generally, this is a great post, and your appeal to evidence-based policymaking is important.