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Police Aren't the Only Public Workers Wearing Body Cameras

Some cities have started equipping them not just to cops but also other government employees who often encounter confrontation.

Body cameras are rapidly becoming a familiar sight in police departments nationwide. Thanks in part to continued controversy over police actions in Baltimore; North Charleston, S.C.; Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, local law enforcement agencies across the country have pledged to outfit officers with body cameras. Most of the nation's largest police departments have either already adopted the cameras or are considering plans to implement them.

Now some communities have begun expanding the use of cameras beyond police, equipping other public employees with video devices. 

Soon, Miami Beach will become the first larger city in the country to extend cameras to multiple departments outside of law enforcement. City commissioners passed a $2.7-million plan last year funding cameras for employees in parking, code enforcement and building and fire inspection, in addition to police. The police department started rolling out body cameras in May, and other departments are expected to follow suit this summer.

Even though civilian employees aren’t making arrests, City Manager Jimmy Morales says the cameras are an important tool in improving customer service and resolving disputes. Motorists can be aggressive when they find their cars have been towed, and property owners aren’t too happy when inspectors issue code violations. “We thought this would be a good way to promote integrity on both ends of the transaction,” Morales says.

Morales also thinks body cameras could help address scandals that plagued the city in years past. In 2012, the FBI charged several city code enforcement officers and fire inspectors in connection with an extortion investigation that found they had taken kickbacks from a South Beach nightclub.

Elsewhere, body cams can be found on code enforcement officers -- who handle things like animal control and abandoned vehicles -- in Pullman, Wash.,  and parking enforcement staff in Newark, Del. Fire marshals in Fredericksburg, Va.; Amarillo, Texas; and other jurisdictions have also made use of body cameras in their investigations. In the U.K., several large jurisdictions have introduced cameras as a means of deterring attacks on parking officers. 

Still, police departments remain the chief purchaser of the cameras, and that’s not likely to change in the near future. As of May, 34 states were considering bills to address body cameras for law enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Taser International, one of the largest body camera manufacturers, reports more than 3,000 agencies now use its cameras nationwide.

Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle says that while the company remains focused on the police market, he sees other areas where cameras could prove useful. Corrections and probation officers, for example, often find themselves in confrontations that could benefit from camera footage. 

“They’re just starting to scratch the surface in their interest,” Tuttle says. “Any public safety employee who sees verbal [or] physical assaults could benefit from cameras because of the better behavior on both sides.”

Others aren't so sure. 

Robert Worden, a University at Albany professor who has studied body cameras, says there are fairly compelling reasons for police to consider adopting cameras. But for those not working in law enforcement, the benefits fail to outweigh the tradeoffs.

“It’s not immediately obvious how governments are going to reap benefits,” Worden says.

As with police cameras, recording all that footage results in substantial data-storage costs. And viewing, processing and logging all those hours of video is labor-intensive. And the additional video footage, some of which is likely to be recorded in private residences, will undoubtedly spur new privacy concerns. 

For police, body cameras enjoy strong public support, with 88 percent of those surveyed in an Economist/YouGov poll backing their use. But efforts to expand implementation of body cameras will likely encounter more opposition than what police departments have faced. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has generally supported implementation of police body camera programs, came out against Miami Beach's initiative, arguing unarmed civilian employees don't require the same check on their authority as police.

It's easy to imagine arguments for strapping cameras on a whole host of public employees. School security officers, say, or perhaps even teachers. What about emergency medical technicians and other first responders? How about transit operators or airport personnel?

It’s too early to say just how many jurisdictions will want to explore expanding use of body cameras. But if public calls for the cameras persist and greater demand drives down costs, more agencies might be tempted to experiment.

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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