The US police force is being heavily scrutinized due to recent events that have led to an uproar among human rights activists. Police brutality is a hot topic these days, to say the least. In order to show transparency and also to avoid violence against police officers, many departments have implemented regulations regarding the use of law enforcement camera It may seem like the device could provide a perfect solution that works for both sides where the police and the public will be forced to think twice before they act violently. For this reason, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), called the use of body cameras as a “win-win situation”. But what is it exactly and does it really work?
Body cameras are small devices that are normally attached to the upper body of the police officer. Some of them have batteries that last only for a few hours and others work for 12 hours without having to be charged. The average price for one device is between $200 and $1000.
There are eight official requirements that need to be followed at US police departments when wearing police body cameras. The requirements include directions such as how to handle the privacy for those who are being captured on film, whether or not police officers are allowed to watch the recorded material before filing a report and who has the right to watch the recordings. Unfortunately, according to recent reports, most of the requirements have so far not been adhered to. The reports come from policy consulting firm Upturn who worked with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in this matter. In fact, none of the 50 departments that were included in the evaluation got a pass in all categories. Two of them even failed in all eight aspects, and one of these was Ferguson Mo. Police department which is widely known as the police department where the shooter of the unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown worked. This is especially significant due to the fact that the death of Michael Brown, in addition to the death of Eric Garner who was also killed by a police officer, is a primary reason for increased surveillance efforts being made in the US.
Police body cameras were first used in Denmark and many countries has since followed the trend in order to gather evidence at crime scenes and increase the accountability for actions both by the police and citizens. However, some argue that recording devices are primarily used in order to protect the police.
Another aspect of the debate is whether or not the recordings of a crime should be publicized. Sometimes an investigation could be compromised by releasing material that could damage the reliability of witnesses, while the citizens may demand access to recordings of themselves. There are also questions regarding whether or not the police is required to record at all times, even in private or confidential situations. It may be too much to expect that a police officer would be able to start recording at the times when it is required the most, such as in violent and stressful situations.
The general view of the use of law enforcement video cam is that their purpose is to increase police accountability. It has been proven successful in some cases, such as in the 2015 police shooting of Samuel DuBose. In this case, the recording device showed that the officers involved had in fact not been put in danger as they had previously stated. Without the body cameras, this case of police brutality would probably never have been revealed.
However, it has also been proven that body cameras can help protect police officers that have been wrongfully accused of criminal actions. For example, In a 2014 case in Albuquerque, a woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted when she was pulled over for drunk driving. The recordings showed that her story was completely fake and police officer was off the hook. Partly due to this fact, many police departments across the world are embracing the technology.
The device also has the potential of saving money. The cost of each device adds up to quite a large amount, but the money saved by potentially avoiding costly trials more than makes up for it. According to a calculation from 2014 that was made by the city of New York, it would cost about $33 million to outfit all of the city’s police departments with body cameras. Although it may sound like a staggering amount, the cost for claims of police brutality was $152 million in 2013. The police body cameras only have to reduce these claims by a fifth in order to pay for themselves.
Of course, there are additional costs that need to be taken into consideration, such as the storage, servers and security of the videos. Nevertheless, it seems like a long stretch to say that body cams would be an expense for the tax payers. Other issues such as who is allowed to watch the videos, for how long they are stored and at what times they can be showed have not quite yet been figured out, however.
Perhaps more importantly, there is an ongoing debate about whether or not it is reasonable that the police officer wearing the camera is the one who controls it. An incident in Chicago this summer included 18-year-old Paul O’Neal who was fatally shot by a police officer, after which it was discovered that the policeman’s body camera had been shut off during the event. O’Neal had been spotted in a Jaguar which had been reported stolen, and a car chase was initiated. The police officer’s body camera was on during the chase but turned off just before O’Neal got out of the car and was shot in the back. According to O’Neal’s family lawyer, the family is filing a lawsuit on the basis of wrongful death. In this case, it is not clear whether the officer turned off the camera himself or if there may have been some technical problems with the device.
In conclusion, police body cameras can indeed be a useful tool, but dangerous when used incorrectly. In many countries, the device has shown good results of improvements but it seems as if it is simply too easy to get away with police brutality when the police officer himself is in control of the device. There is also a need for stricter regulations around how and when it should be in use. If police departments manage to overcome these obstacles it can potentially save money and decrease violence from both civilians and the police.