Police body cameras require good policy to make communities safer

Dashboard cameras on police cruisers are a staple of many law enforcement agencies around the country, proving useful for everything from traffic stops to capturing positive interactions between police and citizens. Recent events have shifted focus to cameras worn by patrol officers to capture their activities in the field.

While use of body-worn cameras raise concerns about privacy and subjectivity, growing interest in the technology may foreshadow a shift in how law enforcement and the public perceive police activity.

Use-of-force incidents decline with cameras
Even before the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Missouri officer, the idea of equipping police with body-worn cameras gained widespread support. A PoliceOne survey from 2012 revealed more than 85 percent of respondents believed that body-worn cameras would reduce instances of false claims for police misconduct and decrease the likelihood of legal action against officers. In addition, 77 percent of participants believed the wearable devices would be more effective than in-car systems. The research, conducted in collaboration with TASER International, included responses from 785 federal, state and local professionals in the U.S.

Mobile cameras could have a significant impact on discouraging acts of violence. According to Police Foundation, body-worn devices increase self-awareness of behavior for both officers and the people they encounter. The cameras serve as a cue that legal rules and social norms must be followed. For this reason, even civil liberties organizations support use of this surveillance technology.

In 2012, researchers tested this hypothesis in a large field experiment in California. The Rialto Police Department participated in a year-long study in which some of their 54 frontline officers wore highly visible HD cameras while on duty, accumulating more than 50,000 hours of police interactions.

The research team found that shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use-of-force incidents as those with body-worn equipment, an overall decrease of 60 percent compared to the previous year when no officers wore cameras. Most importantly, complaints against officers fell from 28 before the study to merely three over the length of the trial period, an 89 percent decline. It was evident that cameras modified the behavior of both the public and the officers, impacting the manner in which both parties interacted with one another.

Adoption may outpace policy
Few police departments in the U.S. currently mandate that officers wear cameras in the field. However, Chris Brown, mayor of Hawthorne, California, is among those now responding to recent use-of-force incidents by trying to quickly pass ordinances to require all uniformed officers to make use of cameras on their shifts.

“I am simply not willing to gamble with a single life, or the wrongful accusation of upstanding officers,” Brown wrote in a letter, quoted by Time.

Vendors like VIEVU and TASER have seen a dramatic uptick in interest in their cameras. VIEVU CEO Steve Ward told USA Today that requests for test units are up 70 percent since the Ferguson incident, making September the best sales month in the Seattle-based company’s history. VIEVU has sold cameras to more than 4,000 law enforcement agencies. TASER has experienced this kind of boom before, when they helped facilitate the widespread adoption of non-lethal electrical weapons by two-thirds of America’s 18,000 police departments in the span of a decade.

According to Time magazine, each unit costs between $800 and $1,000, turning adoption by an entire roster into a $100,000 investment for some departments. Because body-worn cameras utilize components of existing mobile devices, however, prices may be driven down by consumer demand and competition among providers. Innovative agencies may find their own solutions using off-the-shelf products like Google Glass, for example.

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Not all departments are being methodical in considering policy implications of wearing cameras to capture encounters with the public. Many issues surface as a result of adopting the technology, such as when the cameras are active, requests to turn them off, and how to store and make available captured video. Camera vendors offer secure cloud storage services, but that shifts security responsibilities to a third party. Some unions have questioned whether the cameras represent a change in working conditions, and therefore a policy that must be negotiated. Police departments reacting too quickly to the current demand for cameras could face costly consequences if policy and training do not guide use.

“They are diving headfirst into a pool without checking if there is water,” John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told USA Today.

A comprehensive study by Michael White from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in Washington, D.C., concluded that the technology lacks balanced and plentiful research to determine its effectiveness in achieving several beneficial goals. While initial studies suggest positive police and citizen behaviors do arise from camera use, little is known about how much other factors may be entangled with those results. Promises of increasing department transparency or providing training value have not been tested.

Adoption of body-worn cameras requires considerable commitment from law enforcement agencies to train officers with the equipment. In addition, they must decide on strict policies for their use and how to deal with potential consequences of that use. Department and community leaders should take a methodical approach to implementation to provide a strong foundation for improving the safety of both officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect.

Posted on Oct 28, 2014