Body cams for N.Y.C. police as a check on 'stop and frisk': a good idea?

The judge who found the NYPD's stop and frisk policy to be unconstitutional wants the city to test body cameras on officers, as a possible remedy. Experts see pros and cons. Early data from other police departments are encouraging.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Ray Kelly (r.) attend a news conference about a judge's ruling on 'stop and frisk' at City Hall in New York, August 12.

If a federal judge’s ruling holds, hundreds of New York City police officers may soon have to clip on body cams and record their stop-and-frisks on city streets.

After ruling Monday that the city’s policing practices violate the US Constitution, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin also ordered the NYPD to begin a one-year pilot program to evaluate the benefits of body-worn cameras. In at least one precinct in each of New York's five boroughs, cops will be required to carry cameras on their patrols – they are “uniquely suited to addressing the constitutional harms at issue in this case,” the judge said.

If officers are stopping people illegally, or targeting minorities unfairly, such cameras could provide a real-time, objective record of what took place – a better accounting than the current police forms allow for – as well as be a deterrent to such practices.

They might even encourage more respect between both cops and civilians during encounters, Judge Scheindlin reasoned, perhaps building greater trust because people won’t have to worry that it’s their word against the police if they feel they’ve been unjustly stopped and frisked.

“I think it was a great idea,” says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Va., and a former Maryland police officer. “It protects the police officer particularly in cases of abuse, when someone’s claiming that the police officer did something to them, that they did an improper stop. It can show clearly that the officer was correct in his or her actions, and it can also protect the public from police misconduct.”

The cop cams present a disarmingly simple solution to some of the complex constitutional problems Scheindlin identified, but some experts believe they may cause as many problems as they solve, especially for police officers on the ground.

Cameras, some critics say, will pose a host of logistical and procedural issues. And the limited nature of a camera’s perspective could even skew, rather than clarify, the facts on the ground.

“Cameras can be solutions to some issues, but the camera is also imperfect,” says Lance LoRusso, an Atlanta attorney and former law enforcement official who defends police officers accused of misconduct. “In physical confrontations, the camera can get displaced, or they can get broken. The concern is, down the road, if there is no video, then we're not going to believe the officer.

“And part of the problem is when people start expecting that the camera will always be there to give them the ‘eyewitness’ account, if you will, the full account of what the officer is seeing. That can be an issue when those cameras are not available in certain instances,” says Mr. LoRusso, who also wrote a book about these issues in “When Cops Kill: The Aftermath of a Critical Incident.”

Yet some of the early results from police departments using body cams are promising. In a study Scheindlin cited in her ruling, a small police department in Rialto, Calif., had half of its 54 officers wear body cameras. After a year, there were 88 percent fewer complaints filed against officers, compared with the year before. In addition, the department reported a 59 percent decrease in officers' use of force – this with only half the force wearing cameras.

Police departments in Las Vegas and Phoenix are also trying their own pilot programs. In Phoenix, the department has equipped about 50 of its 1,400 officers with body cams for a study with Arizona State University.

"We want to know how it affects an officer's job," Sgt. Tommy Thompson told the AP. "Are there people who will say, 'Listen, turn off that camera or I'm not going to talk to you?' When people are being filmed, do they calm down?"

But questions are being raised again about the logistics of privacy – to say nothing about the amount of video New York's 34,500 officers will accumulate.

“Police agencies are going to have to decide, do we keep these for 30 days? Who has access to the video?” says Professor Burke. “You want to make sure that the video cannot be manipulated. It may be activated by the police officer, but they don’t have the liberty to make any changes to it, and that’s a very good thing. So you want to have a remote site, for the protection of all parties concerned, so there’s no skepticism that the police manipulated this.”

At the end of New York's one-year pilot program, independent monitor Peter Zimroth will work with city officials to decide if body-worn cameras have helped rectify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk problems. They will also determine whether financial and administrative costs may outweigh the program’s benefits.

“I still get concerned when the perspective of the officer – whether or not they reasonably and subjectively believe their life, or the life of a third person was in jeopardy – is now being subjected to the technological limitations of cameras,” says LoRusso.

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