Americans keep asking for police body cams. But do they understand them?

Many Americans are enthusiastic about body cameras' potential to hold law enforcement, suspects, and the general public accountable. But knowledge lags, according to a new report.

Robert Galbraith/ Reuters/ File
Oakland Police Department officer Huy Nguyen puts on a body camera at police headquarters in Oakland, California in this April 2014 file photo. OPD was one of the nation's first large departments to adopt body cameras.

In the fifteen months since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri put a spotlight on police accountability, body cameras have gone from a futuristic possibility to a required part of many cops' uniforms.

Roughly one third of departments across the country have integrated body-mounted cameras in some way, backed by $23 million in Department of Justice grants and near-unanimous public support. According to an online YouGov poll, around 90 percent of Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, support such programs. 

As the body-cam debate shifts from whether departments should use them to how, it is more critical that the public understands exactly how police plan to use the technology, particularly as state legislatures wrestle with privacy rules.  

But although support may seem nearly ubiquitous, knowledge about where and how the cameras operate is far from solid, according to YouGov's new 2015 Policing Perspectives Report. The report was commissioned by Reveal, a front-facing body-camera maker whose products have been used in more than 30 US states and 35 countries.

When asked if their local police force used body cams, 61 percent of respondents said they did not know. Seventeen percent inaccurately believed that they were already used in every US city, and 24 percent believed the government opposes them, unaware that the president has been a major supporter, pushing an approved three-year, $75 million plan to purchase them for local police departments. 

"Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve," Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said when announcing the initiative last May. 

According to the Policing Perspectives Report, 60 percent of Americans agree that community-officer relationships could improve with body cameras. 

While many advocates have focused on using video to keep police accountable for their actions, some departments are confident that they could be used to exonerate officers, too, as they did in Cleveland last month.

"Body camera footage acts as an independent witness to any incident," says Reveal CEO Alasdair Field. The company believes its front-facing cameras, unique in the industry, help ensure that police and citizens alike are aware of video.

That awareness helps not only to track down footage after the fact, but also to prevent problems before they start. According to a Journal of Quantitative Criminology study cited by President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, body cameras decreased the use of force by 87.5 percent and led to 59 percent fewer complaints.

"When officers tell citizens that the cameras are recording their behavior, everyone behaves better," as the Task Force report summarized. 

But as body cams become the norm, officers and public advocates agree on what has already become the next battle: Who stores the footage? Who can see it?

Trust in law enforcement is at its lowest point since 1993, when the Rodney King trial shook public faith in cops: 52 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police. Of the Policing Perspectives Report's respondents, 35 percent would believe a police officer in a case where both the officer and a suspected criminal accused each other of brutality; 10 percent would trust the suspect.

To see that trust increase, many want to see body cam footage made public. A Washington Post investigation revealed that less than half of the available videos of fatal police shootings had been released.

But for body cameras to deliver on their potential to improve those relations, voters will need help navigating the details of not only camera policy, but their simple workings: facts like how they turn on or off, and what they capture, which, according to Reveal's report, still befuddle many Americans. 

"Technology has become so user friendly it is largely 'invisible,'" the National Academies noted in a report on technological literacy in 2002. "Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works," harming their ability to harness it "to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them."

Reveal urges education about body cameras. But where, and how, can that take place?

Perhaps through debate itself. As the Academies also noted, "public participation in discussions about the development and uses of technology ... can lead to greater technological literacy. The simple act of asking and trying to answer questions about technology can lead to a better understanding." 

    

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