We are living in a techno-savvy era of the camera where it is possible to record and share events as they occur in real time. The issue of police officers using body-mounted cameras to record incidences as they occur has attracted a lot of attention. Use of these cameras has been fronted as a strategy of minimizing cases of police misconduct. By capturing encounters between police officers and citizens, objective evidence of what actually happens can be acquired and used rather than self-serving hearsay. While body cameras are gradually becoming part of the standard equipment for various police departments, the practice is still in the initial stages of study and evaluation. There is an intense ongoing debate on the merits and demerits of using these cameras.
Body cameras are small and portable devices that are about the size of cigarette. Their design makes it possible for them to be easily attached to police uniform lapels or collars, clipped to helmets or hats, or mounted on sunglasses. The recording devices base is attached and wired to the officers uniform and then concealed inside a pocket. A police officer is supposed to be wearing the camera throughout his or her shift. The device can record high quality videos, even at night or in situations whereby light is limited by dark interior spaces. The price of these cameras range between $400 and $700 depending on their make and model. However, the total cost may rise to about $1200 when factoring in additional expenses such as data storage, retrieval and maintenance. All in all the costs are expected to decrease significantly in future as new manufacturers enter the industry and as advances in technology are made. Also, new suppliers are expected to introduce additional features like live-stream cameras.
Individuals who argue against the use of police body cameras raise a number of valid issues. A top issue has to do with privacy; something that is of concern to both the police officers and citizens. Some civilians are not comfortable with the likelihood of their encounters with officers being highlighted in the news or on social media. How these concerns can be dealt with is still under evaluation. Related to this is the fact that application of these cameras causes a certain degree of anxiety among the general public. People may be reluctant of coming forward to help with investigations as credible witnesses for fear of public exposure and backlash or retaliation.
Initial versions of policies governing the use of body cameras state that police officers are supposed to physically activate them once they exit patrol vehicles. During interactions with citizens or recording of statements in the course of investigations, the recording equipment should be manually activated. However, it is the officers that decide when cameras will be activated, how long the footage remains in custody, and whether or not it should be made public. For instance, an officer may deactivate the camera when interviewing a sexual assault victim in order to maintain her privacy. The fact that it is the law enforcement officers who decide when to record encounters with civilians can serious undermine the effectiveness of body cameras as a source of concrete evidence.
At times, the proper functioning of police body cameras may be affected by technical issues. They include problems such as obstructed lens, damaged components or dead batteries. Such issues can result in the cameras failing to record crucial behavior or vital witness statements by civilians or police officers. Also, the costs incurred in operating a body camera system cannot be perceived as insignificant as they have to be weighed in balance with other police expenses and reform strategies. The costs involved in operating the system include the cost of the camera itself, expenses to do with recording, storage and access of the footages, and ongoing maintenance. Other possible expenses include those associated with retrieving and cataloguing footages in response to investigations, public requests for information, and subpoenas.
Despite the above-mentioned shortcomings of police body cameras, I believe they are the best strategy for minimizing cases of misconduct among law enforcement officers. The necessity to capture every interaction between the police and civilians can go a long way in reducing complaints on behavior of officers and unwarranted use of force. This is because these interactions are on record for everyone to see. With the strategy in place, both civilians and officers are likely to be more restrained and orderly as they know their every move and words are being recorded. Use of body cameras while on duty presents hard video evidence of decisions that officers make in the course of high intensity confrontations.
Videos captured by police body cameras result in increased levels of accountability and transparency among officers. The footages protect against any abuse and misconduct by officers as well as false accusations against them. In addition to de-escalating or altogether preventing confrontational situations, they may assist in providing valuable evidence in the form of accurate victim and witness statements. Whats more, these footages can go a long way in fast tracking court proceedings and trials by presenting undisputable proof of encounters between police and citizens. The convenience achieved from such presentations can save court expenses as a result of more pre-trial plea bargains together with the possibility of a higher rate of convictions.
After analyzing the merits and demerits of police body cameras discussed above, it is evident that advantages of using the devices by far outweigh the disadvantages. All in all, on the question of whether the cameras actually prevent misconduct in police officers, it is too early to tell. However, the findings from a number of studies on the devices are encouraging. A notable study on the issue was carried out in Rialto, California starting from February 2012. A police department in the area has had its officers wearing body cameras for a number of years now. In the course of the first year after the devices were introduced, it was reported that use of force by officers declined by 60%. Also, complaints about law enforcement officers reported by citizens reduced by a whopping 88%. Given the prevalent cases of officer-involved brutality and shootings such as those in Baltimore, Maryland, South Carolina and Missouri, it is likely that many police departments will adopt the use of body cameras.
Ariel, B., Farrar, W. A., & Sutherland, A. (2015). The effect of police body-worn cameras on use of force and citizens complaints against the police: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 31(3), 509-535.
Drover, P., & Ariel, B. (2015). Leading an experiment in police body-worn video cameras. International Criminal Justice Review, 1057567715574374.
Harris, D. A. (2010). Picture This: Body Worn Video Devices ('Head Cams') as Tools for Ensuring Fourth Amendment Compliance by Police. Texas Tech Law Review, 43, 357.
Jennings, W. G., Fridell, L. A., & Lynch, M. D. (2014). Cops and cameras: Officer perceptions of the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(6), 549-556.
Katz, C. M., Choate, D. E., Ready, J. R., & Nuno, L. (2014). Evaluating the impact of officer-worn body cameras in the Phoenix police department. Phoenix, AZ: Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, Arizona State University.
White, M. D. (2014). Police officer body-worn cameras: Assessing the evidence. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
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