Police Body Cams in the Lou?

by Austin Walker | Jan 12, 2015

Years from now history will hopefully tell a transformational story about the events in Ferguson, but that will only happen if our actions now demonstrate sufficient empathy, resolve and willingness to change. We will undoubtedly be judged by our ability to create enduring solutions together. Among these potential solutions, the mandatory use of body cameras by police appears to be a growing part of public discourse. While these cameras admittedly represent only a part of what will be needed to instill trust between affected communities and the justice system, they have the potential to bring about more immediate and permanent transparency, accountability and confidence than many other ideas out there.

So how useful can these cameras really be? Well, there's a strong argument they could have been pretty helpful last summer in Ferguson. Perhaps video would have shown a young man with his hands raised, or maybe it would have shown him rapidly approaching an officer. Maybe the video wouldn't be key to solving the case at all, but it would likely provide more information than we know today and allow all of us (especially those in the media) an opportunity to focus on more important things like the underlying circumstances resulting in this tragic loss of life in the first place. It will always be up to human beings to discern right from wrong and exoneration from guilt. But for those that loudly protest abuses by police and view themselves as having been kept silent by a system that they claim values the word of an officer over the word of a citizen, recording interactions with police could be a solid check on alleged misconduct.

The idea of putting body cameras on police is not without question or controversy. There are real administrative and privacy concerns about how footage is stored, what the rules of recording need to include, how much the cameras will cost, and what impact these recordings may have on the privacy rights of residents, victims and officers. There are not a lot of organizations more concerned about government intrusion on personal privacy than the ACLU, so it's not surprising that they have weighed in on this particular issue - although it might not be how you think. In their white paper on the use of body cameras entitled "Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All," the ACLU argues that although it does not agree with the increased use of cameras to monitor citizens, it acknowledges that body cameras can result in fewer use-of-force cases, therefore helping to hold law enforcement more accountable to the community. The ACLU posits that requiring officers to wear cameras is not the same thing as conducting surveillance on the population en masse. Their senior policy analyst remarked that "When it comes to the citizenry watching the government, we like that."  However there are certainly critics. Missouri state Representative Jeff Roorda is quoted in an LA Times article saying “Instead of the cameras being there to protect the officers, they get disciplined for petty stuff constantly.”

Even with all of the challenges that come with the implementation of body cameras, police departments all over the country successfully use these cameras every day, some with staggering results that have strong implications for what can be done to help increase confidence in government. Information and guidance on body cameras has been disseminated by both The Department of Justice and individual police departments. One of the most cited empirical studies on body cameras comes out of the city of Rialto in southern CA (see study). In this city of about 100,000 residents, the police chief teamed up with a fellow from Cambridge to conduct a study on the use of body cameras. The study found that Rialto's police officers used force 59% less often when cameras were worn, while citizen complaints against police fell sharply by 87%. When asked for their opinion, many officers had a very positive view of body cameras because they allowed law enforcement to spend more time policing and less time dealing with frivolous complaints. The Rialto Study also conducted an analysis of their actual investment in cameras and maintenance compared to costs associated with litigation and handling use-of-force citizen complaints. The direct benefit to cost ratio was approximately $4 saved for every $1 spent on body cameras. Another study in Mesa, Arizona showed a 40% decrease in total complaints against officers with body cameras, and 75% fewer use of force complaints. 

Technology is a part of public life--for better or worse. The president of the Police Foundation said that "Within the next five years or so, body-worn cameras will be as ubiquitous in the world of policing as handcuffs, the police radio, the gun." President Obama said that he would request $75 million in federal funding to distribute 50,000 body cameras to police departments across the nation, saying they will improve relations between the police and public. The NYPD just started its body camera pilot program in our nation’s largest city

St. Louis should tackle this issue head-on and figure out what laws and policies around this technology are the best fit for us before that answer is decided for us.  We should do the hard work required to make tough decisions. We should respond in a way that will remind generations to come what we accomplished together. Body cameras are not the only answer, and they are certainly not the only way to create an enduring legacy of fairness. However, here we have one of many opportunities to create more trust within our community, and I hope that our collective and cumulative action will leave us standing on the right side of history. What do you think?