Body Cameras: The Future of Police Accountability

Posted: February 12, 2015 by zorasandhu in Uncategorized

Following the August 9th shooting and death of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson Missouri, there has been a strong uproar and public push for police departments to wear body cameras while on duty (The Wire, 2014). The Mike Brown case was scrutinized with controversy between Officer Daren Wilsons’s memory, and conflicting eyewitness testimony of the account (The Wire, 2014). The idea of police worn body cameras is a delicate and fairly new subject that is strung with dispute. While looking at the subject of body cameras it is riddled with many questions regarding the implications and execution of this complex technology.

The first question we must ask ourselves is how do body cameras work? The body cameras will be small and easy to wear for the officers that will record their everyday interactions between members of the public while on duty (The Wire, 2014). They will either be worn on the headgear or on the collar of the officer (The Wire, 2014). These cameras will act almost like a security camera; recording everything the officer does and will be either monitored or looked at later by another on duty officer (The Wire, 2014). Officers will have the luxury of turning body cameras on and off, however it cannot be so easily done in the heat of the moment due to carful design by body camera companies such as Taser (The Wire, 2014). Taser is one of three major manufacturers who will be designing body cameras for police departments. The other two companies are Vievu and Vidcie.

The 3 companies that will be the manufacturers of this body camera technology have similar ideas of how they envision the body camera to work, and work efficiently. The method of operation used by Taser and Vievu is a system where the officer turns the camera on and off when cleared to do so, so relevant information is stored opposed to years of accumulated footage (The Wire, 2014). Vidcie, the smaller of the two companies has a different approach to the storage and implementation of their software. They believe that the best and most efficient way to view their data is to set up a live stream to the precinct, where an on duty officer can watch and monitor the officers every move as it is happening (The Wire, 2014).

Another question we must ask ourselves is who has accesses to this police data? The answer is, only the police, and moreover only the police chief can control this data for example, delete content or copy it for other purposes (The Wire, 2014). The data would go straight to an encrypted data base that Taser and Vievu call the cloud (The Wire, 2014). Once the information is uploaded there is no delete button for the footage. It is saved as a whole file and cannot be edited or spliced (The Wire, 2014). Only after 30 days can the film be removed from the cloud and even then there must be authorization from the police chief (The Wire, 2014). The data is whole and therefore beneficial for transparency and the truth behind officer public relations on a day-to-day basis.

The technology would cost roughly around $300 per body camera set (The Wire, 2014). This is not cheap for departments that are already spread thin for recourses. However, in the long run, body cameras can serve as a cost effective tool in the fight against complaints against the department. Police misconduct investigations and cases cost more to fight than the overall cost of body cameras (The Wire, 2014). The case involving Ferguson, over the shooting of Mike Brown by officer Darren Wilson, is a clear indicator that there is a strong need for all accounts of the truth, and not just reliance of memory and eye witness testimony.

The debates around body cameras are surrounded by constant controversy. Many supporters of the body camera insist that its implications will have a strong positive effect on public police relations and that they will even deter crime (The Vox, 2014). The strongest argument presented for implementing body cameras is that they will hold police officers accountable for their actions, while also helping those officers that are falsely accused (New York Times, 2013). Jay Stanley, a senior analyst of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a strong supporter of the body cameras for the potential to report abusive officers and save those that are falsely accused from public scrutiny (The Vox, 2014).

The BrickHouse Security Survey showed that 72 percent of the public where resilient supporters of body cameras (The Vox, 2014). However, many had different ideas of how body cameras should be turned on. Less than half of the respondents said that the body cameras should be on at all times while the officer is on duty (The Vox, 2014). Close to 29 percent said that body cameras should only be used for officer-civilian interaction, and around 5 said it should be up to the officer to turn on (The Vox, 2014).

Many police departments are skeptical about body cameras (New York Times, 2013). Why shouldn’t they be, with big brother always watching what they do? But after carful consideration more and more departments are adopting the idea of body cameras (New York Times, 2013). In many instances police officers are relieved to know that they are protected in justifying the use of force with video protection. Also studies show that officers are less likely to use force when body cameras are on (New York Times, 2013).

On the flip side of the argument skeptics of body cameras are concerned with public and police privacy (The Vox, 2014). An officer being recorded all the time can affect his or her day-to-day work. For example, an officer may feel less inclined to be himself if he knows he is being recorded, or tell a fellow officer a joke. This can make police work less enjoyable and therefore result in more officers quitting the force (The Vox, 2014). The concerns regarding a police officer’s right to privacy is a huge concern, which could have a major impact on the way police operate while on patrol.

Public privacy from the police is another big issue raised by skeptics. Many people do not like the idea of the every moment being recorded by officers of the law (The Vox, 2014). Privacy becomes an even bigger concern when a patrol officer is required to enter your house with a body camera (The Vox, 2014). Where do we draw the line? How do we prosecute those with false accusations towards the police? These are just some concerns that have had huge weight on the dispute.

When looking at literature by scholars such as Goldsmith and his ideas on police accountability, and “The New Visibility” I can’t help but feel we are moving past the media producer society into something greater and more unknown (Goldsmith, 2010). Goldsmith expresses his views of the new visibility as a media producer society, where the public or the consumers are now also producers of media and can produce their own events with the click of a button on their cell phone (Goldsmith, 2010). This idea of a media producer society has not done well for police and police accountability because many of the recorded footage are only half the truth. Now with new technology the watchmen, being the police, can also be media producers to benefit their own cause and get out the whole truth as events truly took place, in an orderly and structured way.

In my opinion police body cameras should be a requirement for all departments and if not on all officers at least the majority of officers. Recent studies done by police chief , William A. Farrar, has shown that with body cameras there has been an 88 percent decrease in the number of complaints aimed at police officers wearing cameras (New York Times, 2013). Also with his research he states that police officers have reduced their use of force almost 60 percent (New York Times, 2013). Body cameras will strengthen public faith in the police and will essentially weed out the bad eggs in the department. If not, it will at least straighten up their act. Although this new idea of body cameras may be met with some resilience, the overall benefits thus far, seem to outweigh the negatives. Therefore it is my opinion that Body cameras be made mandatory in all police departments.

References

Goldsmith, A. (2010). Policing’s new visibility. British Journal of Criminology, 50, 914 – 934

New York Times. (2013). Wearing a Badge and a Video Camera. Retrieved on February 6, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/business/wearable-video-cameras-for-police-officers.html?_r=2&

The Wire. (2014). The Big Picture, How do Police Body Cameras work. Retrieved February 5, from http://www.thewire.com/national/2014/08/how-do-police-body-camera-work/378940/

Vox. (2014). Why Police should wear body cameras and why they shouldn’t. Retrieved February 6, from http://www.vox.com/2014/9/17/6113045/police-worn-body-cameras-explained

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is an informed, organized, and effective post. The decision to structure the post around responses to a series of questions makes it easy to follow your analysis.

    Your engagement with the work of Goldsmith (2010) is particularly interesting. You write that “I can’t help but feel we are moving past the media producer society into something greater and more unknown (Goldsmith, 2010).”I would welcome additional commentary on what this new configuration of media and society looks like, from your perspective. Regarding the new visibility of policing, you note that “This idea of a media producer society has not done well for police and police accountability because many of the recorded footage are only half the truth.” I am curious – do you have evidence to support this claim? I can think of a number of instances where video recordings have provided an invaluable supplementary / alternative account that contradicted the official police account of an encounter. It is unlikely, as Goldsmith (2010) notes, that we would have come to fulsome understanding of the events surrounding the deaths of Mr. Dziekanski or Mr. Tomlinson without the video evidence captured by members of the public. How, then, does this translate into a negative outcome in terms of police accountability? Is the suggestion that this “has not done well for police” because it has resulted in some police wrongdoing coming to light? I would be interested in reading your reply.