The protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown triggered never-ending suggestions about how to avoid a repeat situation. One of them involved technology.
Placing small cameras on cops is a fast-growing trend in policing. The cameras -- which are small enough to fit on a vest, an officer’s collar or on eyewear and cost $500 to $1,000 each -- can be an important tool to improving evidence collection, public behavior and police accountability. Today, more than 1,000 police departments have some or all of their officers wear body cameras, including Atlantic City, N.J.; Ferguson, Mo. (as of last week); Los Angeles (one of the nation's largest police departments); Oakland, Calif.; Phoenix; San Diego and Seattle.
Using video to record police interactions with the public isn't new. In the past decade, police departments have installed more than 17,500 cameras in police cars, according to the International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP). The initial reason for the dashboard cameras was to improve officer safety and mitigate allegations of racial profiling. But police departments also discovered the cameras provided valuable evidence and improved officer conduct.
“Today, there’s no record of how an interaction and arrest took place other than the words of the arrestee and the officer, who gets the benefit of the doubt from a judge in a trial,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and an expert on police behavior and regulation. “If these camera systems are used properly, they should go a long way toward addressing that concern.”
In 2006, police officers in the United Kingdom tested body cameras and found that the technology greatly enhanced the collection of hard-to-refute evidence and resulted in fewer cases going to trial. In 2012, a similar field test took place with the Rialto, Calif., Police Department. The results of their 12-month study were stunning: When the cameras were turned on, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent and complaints against the police fell 90 percent.
“People stop acting badly when you tell them they are being recorded,” said Las Vegas Sheriff Douglas Gillespie during a 2013 police conference.
But body cameras have their problems.
There are privacy concerns when police venture inside someone’s house and other private areas. In addition, situations involving children and victims of domestic abuse have to be treated very sensitively. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in support of body cameras but called for measures to ensure police officers don’t edit the recordings and strict limits on officers' ability to choose when to use the camera.
Harris believes the cameras should record every encounter. “Dashboard cams turn on automatically every time the cruiser siren is activated. There isn’t a comparable way to that yet with wearable cameras, but I’m confident there will be a solution.”
Questions have also been raised about the reliability of the technology and the costs (an entire system with cameras, storage and software can run from several hundred thousand dollars into the millions of dollars, according to some estimates). But Harris said that, based on what he’s seen, the camera systems work well. When an officer comes in from a shift, he or she attaches the device to a docking station, which automatically downloads the recording to a third-party storage facility.
Police departments that try to use a new technology like body cameras before they have policies in place about usage, cost and security run into trouble, according to David Roberts, senior program manager for IACP. To help the police, IACP has drafted a model policy framework for wearable cameras.
"[Cameras] can help ensure that law enforcement protects and serves, is accountable for its mistakes, and is protected from false attacks,” said Harris. “I really think that if the cameras come into wide use, they will be a big step forward.”