Following the 2014 officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, many police leaders suggested that much of the early controversy surrounding the incident would have been avoided or eliminated if Officer Darren Wilson had been equipped with a body-worn camera.
At the time of the Brown shooting, the technology certainly existed—agencies first began experimenting with the technology in the early 2000s—but they were not in widespread use.
However, after the Brown shooting, police agencies across the country began buying the devices in massive numbers. The thinking was generally that the cameras would help improve transparency and strengthen the relationships between police and the communities they serve.
Agencies using them have said that the number of citizen complaints being upheld has fallen, with camera footage frequently exonerating officers of wrongful allegations. Some departments have seen the behavior of subjects change, preventing confrontations. Other departments point to the fact that body camera footage has helped to increase the number of successful prosecutions of attacks on officers.
Let's look at some of the benefits—and the limitations—of body-worn cameras.
Benefits of Body Cams
One of the biggest benefits—and most popular arguments among officers who feel that adding a camera is just more "Big Brother" from department brass—is their effectiveness in countering false misconduct allegations.
"Based on my experience, [body-worn cameras] almost eliminates citizen complaints against the officer that we later find out are completely false. When I utilized them, when I was deputy chief in my other department, 100% of the citizen complaints that came to my desk from a traffic stop were proven false by the videos. I think its greatest value is protection of the officer," Buffalo Grove, IL, Police Chief Steve Casstevens says.
An obvious secondary benefit to a reduction in number of successful misconduct complaints is the enormous savings in department resources—most notably the time to conduct an investigation as well as monies paid out in costly civil settlements.
Footage from body-worn cameras can also be used to build good will among citizens. Body-worn camera footage of an officer's simple act of kindness or amazing act of valor can be posted on social media, sparking conversation about all the wonderful things that officers do on a daily basis.
Casstevens adds, "The second greatest value is the protection of the citizen. We know that 99.99% of our officers continue to do an outstanding job, but we're all humans. We all have our bad days, and it really forces the officers to remember to be the professionals that they should be."
Similarly, the presence of a camera can lead subjects to be more compliant with an officer's commands, therefore reducing the possibility of the officer needing to use force to get the individual into handcuffs.
In addition, body-camera footage can be enormously helpful in ensuring enhanced accuracy of an officer's reports. An officer will be able to sync his or her memory of an event—all the sights, sounds, thoughts, and feelings they sensed—with what the camera was able to capture. This helps prosecutors make better informed decisions on whether to proceed with a criminal trial.
Finally, footage from body-worn cameras can be excellent tools for officer training. It's certainly nothing new to use video for training, but the first-person element to body-worn cameras can add another level of intensity, especially at the academy level.
Limitations of Body Cams
It's important to understand that body-worn cameras are not the end of police-involved controversy. They are not some panacea that will solve problems related to police-community relations. They are not infallible.
Greg Meyer, a retired captain from the Los Angeles Police Department, says, "Body cameras will give you, these days, a pretty good field of view, but they don't tend to cover your entire peripheral vision. Okay, that's one limitation. And in a critical incident when you're facing a threat you are narrowly focused, your attention is on the threat. Your attention is on the suspect's hands because it's the hands, or something in the hands, that are going to kill you. And guess what? That means that under stress you typically will not see this other stuff out here."
Meyer says that another limitation on body cameras, whether it's day or night but especially at night, is that the camera sees better than the human eye.
"The technology is so good now. We see all this digital body camera evidence and it almost looks like it's daytime out there. That is not the same eyeball that you have at night that is trying to adjust to a low-light condition. All of those things are important to the investigation and to giving the officer, and the public, a fair shake," Meyer says.
And a body camera will capture some important footage, but it won't get everything.
"One of the biggest problems is most of those cameras are worn in the chest area of the officer's uniform, which faces where the chest is pointed, not necessarily where the eyes are pointed," says Chief Casstevens.
Further, body-worn camera footage is a two-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional event. A body-worn camera won't have a memory of a frequent flyer's behavior—it won't necessarily pick up on a pre-attack indicator an officer has seen the subject in the frame do on several other occasions prior to that contact.
In addition, the units themselves can break, become dislodged from an officer during a physical altercation, or be obscured by other equipment or articles of clothing.
Casstevens adds that some mount designs are less stable than others. For example, he mentions a device he once saw at a trade show that mounts to an officer's hat. "I can swat that right off of your head," he says.
Storage and Policy
There are some significant costs associated with BWCs that not every purchasing agent might immediately think of—most notably the costs of data storage and video redaction can be quite high.
"What you're paying for is the data package," Casstevens says. "The body cameras themselves are getting less expensive and the data storage is where your cost comes in."
Agencies must determine whether or not the video files should be stored in "the cloud"—servers operated by outside vendors elsewhere in the country—or in servers maintained by the city's IT department. That determination will likely be made based on the volume of data in question.
In addition, policy must address potential privacy concerns for citizens caught on video—it is incumbent on policy makers to balance the desire for police transparency with people's Fourth Amendment Rights.
These problems must be addressed up front with clear policy written on how long certain videos are kept, who else in the criminal justice system may have access to them, how that access is provided, how Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the media will be handled, and other matters.
Casstevens says that while he doesn't presently have the technology deployed in Buffalo Grove, he would do so if he could.
Casstevens adds, "I'm a fan of body cameras. Like any good police chief, I watch multitudes of videos online and on Facebook of officers involved in everything from simple arguments with motorists to officer-involved shootings. It really gives you a different perspective as opposed to just the old standard squad car video camera that's on the dashboard. I really see great value in them. If I had a half a million dollars in grant money I didn't know what to do with, I would absolutely implement them tomorrow. I just don't have the funding right now."
Pressure from politicians, the press, and the public for police to use body cameras during the commission of their duties isn't going anywhere—in fact it's probably increasing.
There are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, employing roughly 800,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies. It's fair to say that the majority of those agencies and the majority of those LEOs do not yet have body cameras. However, it's not an outlandish idea to think that one day in the future, they all will be equipped with this technology.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.