Body Cameras Are No Panacea, But Citizen Participation Can Deter Excessive Force

In the wake of tragic encounters between police and civilians, such as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, many politicians have suggested that police wear body cameras. Detroit has had it’s own tragedies like the death of Aiyana Jones in a raid. Advocates of body cameras have argued that they would serve to exonerate officers who acted appropriately, while documenting the wrong-doing of those who used excessive force.

While these cameras may prove helpful in certain circumstances they are not without problems; simply giving officers a new gadget is not a cure-all. Significant challenges arise in three major areas: How much to spend, when to have them turned on, and how to properly manage the huge database of video recordings.

The cost of equipping each officer with a body camera is high. It is a no brainer, that competitive bidding will be necessary to get the best deal for taxpayers, and to inoculate the city from the appearance of back-room deals or nepotism, but the lowest bidder would still charge a considerable amount. One manufacturer, Taser, estimates the costs to be between $300 and $500 per camera, and estimates a price tag of $850,000 to equip 1,700 officers with cameras. This cost would not include storage. Competitors may be able to offer a lower price, but let’s consider the fact that Detroit just got out of bankruptcy court, and retiring officers lost a significant share of their pensions because of it.

Then there is the cost of information storage. The Associated Press has found that San Diego’s five-year contract with Taser would cost $3.6 million for storage contracts after spending $267,000 on cameras. Also, the Duluth Police Department  must spend $78,000 for storing data for three years from 84 cameras.  While public safety may be priceless, money spent in the real world on one service, is money not spent on something else.  For example about 11,000 rape kits remained untested for 5 years after their discovery until last year when the state legislature freed up $4 Million to have them tested.

Sometimes cameras are off when they should be on.  Last August a man was shot by a New Orleans officer after her camera was turned off.  Other times, people would like them turned off.  Since there is already a history of police dash cam video finding its way on line, there is a risk that stored body cam videos could be leaked as well. If an officer can’t turn off his or her body cam, then what about activities as routine as using the restroom?  Will people in the community be willing to invite officers in their homes when they know the interior will be recorded? Furthermore, Witnesses and confidential informants will be hesitant to talk openly if the conversation is recorded for others to see.

One policy that would address this problem was suggested in an article by the ACLU:

If a police department is to place its cameras under officer control, then it must put in place tightly effective means of limiting officers’ ability to choose which encounters to record. That can only take the form of a department-wide policy that mandates that police turn on recording during every interaction with the public.

And this requirement must have some teeth associated with it — not only a risk of disciplinary action but also perhaps an exclusionary rule for any evidence obtained in an unrecorded encounter (for police who have been issued the cameras, unless there is an exigency to justify the failure to record). Another means of enforcement might be to stipulate that in any instance in which an officer wearing a camera is accused of misconduct, a failure to record that incident would create an evidentiary presumption against the officer.
–Jay Stanley, October 9, 2013.

Even video recorded under appropriate circumstances need not be preserved forever.  If there are no incidents reported by citizens or officers that could be potentially litigated later, then the recordings should be deleted after a clearly established waiting period.  This would reduce the likelihood of the videos being leaked or circulated in a manner that would invade people’s privacy or serve to humiliate people.  One such example of humiliation recently took place in Grosse Pointe Park where officers circulated unflattering videos of a civilian for their own amusement.  Similar abuse could also occur on the part of civilians who have gained access to videos that have not been properly secured, or were overlooked due to a huge backlog of videos that did not need to be preserved.

Overall, one problem remains even if all of the other problems are addressed by ideal practices and policies on the part of the police department; the police are still in control of the videos.  If a situation were to arise where the public has lost confidence in the Departments ability to police itself, there needs to be an independent means of documenting the truth.

This additional means is all around us.  The majority of civilians carry their own counterpart to the body cam.  Whether it be in their phones, or stand-alone cameras, citizens are prepared to record incidents at a moments notice. Hundreds of thousands of mobile cameras are all over the city without costing taxpayers a dime.  When there are confrontations in public places, people don’t need much encouragement to start recording either.  The people who recorded the Eric Garner tragedy needed no prompting, nor did the people who recorded the arrest of Ronald Johns in East Harlem last July.

The only thing that might get in the way of this impromptu citizen oversight is the danger of intimidation.  For example, a New York man was arrested and charged with interfering with an arrest when he recorded a NYPD Officer from 30 feet away.  The video was deleted, and was not mentioned in the arrest report.  While this civilian was able to recover the deleted files, and vindicate himself, incidents like this could have a chill effect on this valuable resource for citizen oversight.

So while some carefully monitored body camera use may prove valuable, it has limitations.  But these limitations could be well supplemented by a departmental policy that formally recognizes the right of civilians to record video of police encounters in public places, including incidents involving arrests and the use of force.  This policy should be strictly enforced, and intimidation or the deletion of this evidence should be dealt with harshly.  Such a policy, in conjunction with judicious body camera use would go a long way to creating an environment where law abiding citizens, and those sworn to serve and protect them can feel safe while rouge elements with or without badges know that if they do wrong in a public place, there is a good chance they will be recorded.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/21/detroit-rape-kits-backlog/7954957/

http://www.macon.com/2015/02/06/3572652/for-police-body-cameras-big-costs.html

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_BODY_CAMERAS_HIDDEN_COSTS?SITE=MIDTN&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-body-cameras-20140927-story.html#page=1

https://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all

http://www.fox8live.com/story/26283883/officer-involved-in-monday-shooting-had-body-cam-turned-off

http://motorcitymuckraker.com/2013/11/22/grosse-pointe-officer-admits-taking-humiliating-videos-mentally-ill-man/

http://pix11.com/2014/07/24/man-speaks-on-cellphone-video-of-violent-nypd-arrest-of-east-harlem-man/

http://photographyisnotacrime.com/blog/2014/02/nypd-cop-attacks-man-video-recording-deleting-footage-man-recovers-footage/

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About Willie Burton

Willie Burton is the Police Commissioner for Detroit's Fifth District. He answers to the people in his district. He is an experienced, committed, and compassionate leader who is dedicated to serving his community.
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