From Ferguson, Baltimore, use-of-force police encounters resulting in the unnecessary loss of life have sparked controversy over outfitting law enforcement with body-worn cameras to increase transparency and ensure the protection of the police and public.
Last month, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing to examine the challenges involved in use of body cameras, particularly privacy issues.
“Certainly, the potential exists for body cameras to enhance public trust of police,” said Sen.Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “And they may provide evidence to show the public how well law enforcement handles very trying situations. They might also show whether police training is working well. And it is possible that their existence might cause police officers to change how they perform certain aspects of their jobs.”
However, Grassley added, “Many practical questions regarding their use need to be thought through. These include determining when cameras would and would not be operating; how privacy of people’s homes and of crime victims would be maintained; how footage is to be retained and chain of custody preserved; and what access the public may have to the tapes.”
Amid tense police-community relations in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri. last year, President Obama announced $263 million in funding for law enforcement agencies to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras and improve training.
The White House also recently announced the creation of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. In its March 2015 Interim Report, the task force stated body-worn cameras can improve policing practices and build community trust and legitimacy.
However, the Task Force also cited a 2014 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) publication, funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), that revealed, “Although body-worn cameras can offer many benefits, they also raise serious questions about how technology is changing the relationship between police and the community.”
The PERF report added, “Body-worn cameras not only create concerns about the public’s privacy rights but also can affect how officers relate to people in the community, the community’s perception of the police, and expectations about how police agencies should share information with the public.”
The use of body-cameras for enforcement activities has also extended to border security. Earlier this year, in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) launched a study to test the feasibility of incorporating body-worn cameras by Border Patrol agents in land, air and maritime operational environments.
“The implementation of body-worn cameras has the potential to significantly bolster CBP’s recent commitment to transparency and accountability,” said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Benefits of body-worn cameras for law enforcement
In November 2014, Homeland Security Today reported a study sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police revealed 50 percent of complaints were immediately withdrawn when video evidence was used and 94 percent of citizens supported use of video.
For example, in South Carolina, law enforcement agencies have been experimenting with the use of body-worn cameras for over five years, with approximately 15 percent of the sheriffs’ offices in South Carolina having implemented body-worn camera programs to date, according to the testimony of Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.
Bruder said agencies which have implemented body-worn cameras have reported significant reductions in complaints on officers, provided teaching opportunities by allowing seasoned officers to point out tactical mistakes on film, and, overall, have produced a more professional and transparent police force.
However, Bruder noted, “Body-worn cameras can aid in transparency, but they will not mend community relations alone.”
Cost remains a significant hurdle. For one sheriff’s office in South Carolina, the cost of body-worn cameras for approximately 250 deputies was approximately $600,000 for the initial purchase and implementation of the cameras and approximately $600,000 each year thereafter in recurring expenses.
Moreover, according to PERF, in addition to the initial purchasing cost of the cameras, which can range from $120 to $2,000 per device, agencies must also pay for ongoing data storage, training, program management and camera maintenance.
“At a time when many law enforcement agencies in South Carolina are struggling to find sufficient funds to outfit their officers with bullet-proof vests or purchase less lethal technology or other life-saving methods, the idea of investing such tremendous amounts of money in body-worn cameras seems like a fairy-tale to many,” Bruder said.
Cost aside, body-worn cameras present a number of advantages for police operations. For instance, they can support criminal investigations by providing accurate and reliable evidence of crimes investigated by police, allowing cases to be reconciled with little to no factual dispute, according to Peter A. Weir, District Attorney, First Judicial District, Golden, Colorado.
“Trust in our law enforcement community and the criminal justice system is essential to an ordered democracy,” Weir said. “Without it, confidence in the means of enforcing the criminal law dissolves, leaving all of us at risk. Any method of enhancing that trust, including advances in technology, serves to create an atmosphere of safety and security.”
“Body-worn cameras constitute movement toward that goal,” Weir added.
Privacy and other concerns associated with body-worn cameras
Although a number of law enforcement departments have achieved success in using body-worn cameras to improve transparency and evidence-gathering, as well as reduce use-of-force complaints, the technology has sparked significant concern over privacy and other issues.
“Body cameras raise unique privacy concerns—cameras follow officers into even the most private of locations, including bedrooms and hospital rooms, and capture images of innocent victims and bystanders,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) . “Some officers report that the cameras discourage already reluctant witnesses from cooperating, as they may fear the accused or others will see the video and retaliate.”
In addition to concerns over use of cameras during police operations, Lindsay Miller, senior research associate at PERF, noted there is also the issue of how camera videos are stored, how long videos are retained, who has access to the footage, and the circumstances under which police videos will or will not be released to the public or the news media.
Weir outlined at least five categories of concern associated with use of body-worn cameras: costs, extent of recording, cataloguing for use in criminal prosecution, release of video to the public, and the acceptance of limitations of body cameras.
Of these categories, Weir argued that the most important is the creation of policies on when not to record.
For example, Weir said, privacy and constitutional rights could be impacted by a policy of recording every moment an officer is on shift. Such a policy could negatively affect sexual abuse victims, particularly children, and those with a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as those in a medical setting.
“It is this type of legal and practical tug-of-war between privacy and transparency police and prosecutors need to resolve when making the ‘when to record’ decision,” Weir said.
Trust between police and the community is also a major obstacle to the implementation of body-worn cameras. Numerous police officers told PERF the body-worn cameras could cause more distrust between law enforcement and the community. Community members may be less likely to strike up a casual conversation or share sensitive information about a crime with a police officer if everything they say is recorded.
Consequently, PERF recommended that, rather than record all conversations between police officers and the public, officers should be required to activate their cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters and activities that occur while the officers is on duty.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said while the cameras are touted for increasing transparency of police actions, the cameras are not pointing towards the police, but towards the public.
“Cameras point away from the people who operate them,” Henderson said. “Body-worn cameras will be trained on the members of the community, not officers themselves.”
To help ensure that police-operated cameras enhance civil rights, Henderson recommended implementing well-crafted policy safeguards, such as: setting clear operational policies; enforcing disciplinary protocols for policy violations; making footage available to promote accountability; and prohibiting officers from viewing footage before they fill out reports in an effort to preserve the independent evidentiary value of the officer’s report.
“Without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problem we are seeking to fix,” Henderson said.
No single solution
Whether or not body-worn cameras offer the right solution to increasing police-community tensions over use-of-force incidents, they are not the only solution.
“I am here today because I believe strongly that another important piece of that puzzle to help rebuild trust and construct brighter futures in many communities around the country is body-worn cameras,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said at the hearing. “I say one piece, because I think we can all acknowledge there is no single solution, but rather many critical steps we must take to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and instances of police brutality.”
Similarly, Leahy said although the creation of the Task Force for the 21st Century, and specifically the recommendation to outfit law enforcement with body-worn cameras, is a step in the right direction, there is no single solution here.
“Cameras alone are not enough,” Leahy said. “Many communities suffer from decades-long mistrust of the criminal justice system.”
Moreover, the cameras themselves have limitations and cannot be a substitute for good policies, training, and community policing. Since cameras cannot record everything an officer experiences and may only record from a certain angle or perspective, they are no substitute for the human eye.
For example the officer’s positioning—such as holding a gun in front of his face or torso—could block the camera’s view depending on where it is worn. In a struggle, the camera may not even pick up the fight. Low light and darkness could pose further limitations.
“These limitations are not reasons to delay or resist their use, but acceptance of camera limitations must be part of the discussion,” Weir said. “Placing body cameras on police officers cannot completely resolve police-citizen tensions, but they can go a long way to reducing them.”
“Although body-worn cameras carry the potential to create conclusive records of police activity, they are not all-encompassing, nor are they a panacea,” Weir concluded.
While body-worn cameras may be a useful tool on the question for justice, they are only one piece of the puzzle.