WASHINGTON – Reports of police misconduct and abuse have proliferated in the digital age, prompting calls for police departments to adopt body cameras to record their activities. While these devices could make for more accountable law enforcement, some experts caution against overstating their benefits.
The ubiquity of recording devices has spawned the rise of video evidence exposing instances of police misconduct and abuse. Not surprisingly, this has also resulted in various instances of police harassment and intimidation of people recording law enforcement activities.
Despite some state laws that make it illegal to record others without their consent, federal courts have constantly held that individuals have a First Amendment right to record law enforcement officers carrying out their duties in public spaces.
Steven Silverman, executive director of the advocacy organization Flex Your Rights, said it is important that people are aware of their rights while documenting police activity and use their recording devices “like you are a reporter, and not like you are a spy.”
“If you’re recording the police and they tell you to put your camera away, that is an unlawful order,” Silverman said during a panel event at the Cato Institute.
Silverman’s organization has produced several videos teaching Americans their rights in a police encounter. Silverman said when recording police one should make sure not to hold the camera in a threatening way, respond to officers in a non-confrontational way, and prepare to be arrested.
“If you’re brave enough to record the police, you must look at this activity as a potential act of civil disobedience that could lead to your arrest,” he said.
Many police departments have long captured some of their officers’ interactions with the public, primarily through dashboard cameras that record police traffic stops.
Advances in technology and the rise in cell phone recordings of police have led to a growing movement in the United States to have on-duty officers use body cameras to record their interactions with the public. Proponents of using body cameras argue that they could help hold police accountable for their actions and protect officers who are falsely accused of wrongdoing.
The small, pager-sized cameras clip onto an officer’s uniform or glasses, or can be worn as a headset, and can record audio and video. Some cameras have enough battery to last a couple of hours, while others can last as long as 12 hours.
There are a number of camera manufacturers, including Panasonic, VIEVU, and TASER International. Competition among the vendors of these devices has driven the price down to around $350. But costs could add up for police departments, as these cameras require storage and management of data.
Around 5,000 police departments nationwide have started using body cameras, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Police officers in Rialto, Calif., started wearing cameras in February 2012. Police in Laurel, Md., started using them last summer. Los Angeles Police Department officers began testing on-body cameras in January. After a federal judge ordered the New York Police Department last year to equip officers with cameras in some districts, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton announced in September that 60 officers will start wearing the devices as part of a pilot program. Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department announced earlier this month that 150 officers will start wearing body cameras.
The Community Oriented Policing Services, an arm of the Justice Department and the Police Executive Research Forum, found that the Rialto police saw a 60 percent reduction in the use of force by officers and an 88 percent decrease in citizen complaints after implementing cameras.
After the shooting and killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., calls for more police departments to use wearable cameras seemed to reach a crescendo, including a White House petition that received more than 100,000 signatures – the number required to get a response from the administration.
The Ferguson Police Department started wearing body cameras shortly after the shooting.
Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, found that body cameras have a potential “civilizing effect, resulting in improved behavior among both police officers and citizens.”
There is still much debate about the effectiveness of these cameras in real police settings. White concludes in his report that there is slim evidence on the perceived benefits and drawbacks of the technology.
“Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police. Departments considering body-worn cameras should proceed cautiously, consider the issues outlined in this review, and recognize that most of the claims made about the technology are untested,” he wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which typically opposes practices that potentially infringe on individual privacy, published a white paper last year supporting the use of cameras.
“Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers,” the report said. “Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”
Nevertheless, the ACLU’s endorsement comes with some caveats. Cameras would have to ideally record constantly, so that an officer could not turn it off to evade the documentation of abuses committed on duty. Officers should also be required to tell people about the recording and footage should be erased after a set period of time.
Matthew Fogg, a 32-year veteran of the United States Marshals Service, said that even though the advent of body cameras could be a boon to law enforcement transparency and accountability, addressing the “blue wall of silence” in police culture – the tendency of police to defend each other against any accusations of wrongdoing – should be a priority.
“Body cameras are a good idea…but [police misconduct and abuse] has been going on forever and all of my years in law enforcement I saw a lot of questionable incidents,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we need to address in the system.”