Much of the outcry in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of an unarmed young black man this month comes down to a disagreement about what actually happened in the moments before Michael Brown was killed.
Did he in fact have his hands up in surrender, as witnesses have said? Or was he reaching for an officer’s weapon, as police maintain.
It’s a dispute that, if the officer had been wearing a body camera – now standard practice in a small but growing number of police departments around the country – might have been settled quickly and decisively.
The Brown shooting and other recent police shootings in which apparently unarmed men were killed and accounts of what happened sharply differ have led to growing calls for standard use of such body cameras and “dash cams” by police.
In fact, it’s a rare issue where diverse stakeholders – including many police critics, civil rights groups, and law enforcement members – seem to agree. Many argue that routine use of cameras by police could be a win for everyone, if the technology is adopted alongside good policies that take into account concerns like privacy.
“It benefits both the public and the police,” says Joseph Giacalone, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York police detective sergeant. “It will keep police doing a better job, but it also keeps the public in line, too.”
There’s no authoritative count of how many police departments are currently using cameras, and not a lot of evidence about how much they help. But the few studies that have been done show encouraging results.
In Rialto, Calif., which has a relatively small police department of 115 officers, the use of force by police officers dropped by about 60 percent after body cameras were adopted two years ago, and citizen complaints against police officers dropped by 88 percent.
“It’s a valuable resource for law enforcement, and it also has proven to be an asset for showing transparency to the community,” says Rialto Police Captain Randy De Anda.
Captain De Anda says the footage has been useful as evidence during prosecution, and that the presence of the cameras seems to serve as a check on inappropriate behavior by both police and citizens. In addition, he says, it’s already served as a protection for officers accused of excessive force.
In one instance in the first month of the study, an officer responded to a report of a man with a gun in what turned out to be, as De Anda termed it, “suicide by cop.” The man pointed a weapon at the officers, who later found a suicide note in his vehicle. Witnesses who had videotaped the shooting from a distance posted their video, claiming that the officer had shot an unarmed man waving a cell phone – a claim that started to go viral until the police department was able to respond with not only its version of events, but also video footage to support it.
“Had we not worn body cameras, there would have been that question of was he armed or not,” says De Anda.
More recently, a young man alleged that he was beaten up and abused by an officer dealing with an altercation at a party, says De Anda. The department was able to pull tape from the officer’s partner showing that, in fact, the accuser had been the aggressor.
Ongoing studies in Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz., aren’t complete, but are showing results similar to Rialto when it comes to decreases in both complaints and police use of force, says Michael White, an Arizona State University criminal justice expert who wrote a recent report on police body cameras for the Department of Justice.
Still, Professor White and others say departments shouldn’t rush into wide-scale adoption of camera use without carefully considering the concerns and involving community members and officers in developing procedures to address them.
“People are assuming citizens will be very positive about officers wearing cameras, but no one has actually surveyed citizens,” says White.
He and others note that there may well be valid privacy concerns that arise – sexual assault or domestic violence victims who don’t want to be filmed, for instance, or parents of a child who has been victimized. Cost is a big factor for most police departments, but the cost of the cameras is nothing compared to the hurdles and costs departments may face with managing and storing the enormous amounts of data generated and with training and administrative policies, White says.
Departments also need to decide how long data will be stored, and whether officers will have discretion as to when they film, or whether it will be automatic.
“The key is to have a framework,” says Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledging that it’s unusual for the ACLU to find itself advocating for what is essentially more government surveillance. But while privacy concerns exist, Mr. Rickerd says, they are outweighed – provided the right protections are put in place – by the transparency and accountability that the cameras could provide.
Rickerd argues, in particular, for a data protection policy in which video is discarded after a matter of weeks unless there is a red flag and it has evidentiary or investigative value.
He also says that while a victim – like a sexual assault survivor – should be able to give consent to an officer to stop recording, the officer himself should not be able to decide not to tape certain encounters.
“Constant recording is the only way to make sure this works,” says Rickerd.
While police have largely supported the adoption of cameras, with the Dallas Police Chief last year calling them “the future of law enforcement,” some have expressed concerns as well. Some officers worry it could lead to “fishing expeditions” by supervisors determined to wade through footage and find instances of wrongdoing, or be a hindrance in their work.
“Cops don’t like change, period,” says Professor Giacalone.
But if some of the promised benefits may be still unproven, Ferguson provides at least one clear example of the upsides, says White.
“In Ferguson, we’re hearing two vastly different stories about what happened,” says White. “And there’s no independent record to look at to see whose version is accurate. It’s very clear that this technology does provide that benefit.”