Rise of the Issue
Increased (social) media coverage of police violence over the past years has fueled the debate on whether police should be required to wear body cameras. A whopping 93 percent of the public is in favor of law enforcement using body cams when interacting with the public. The majority of officers is also in favor, though the number is much lower: 66 percent.
Though many believe the use of body cameras would improve police conduct and hold them accountable if they act contrary to law, there are other factors to be considered. How can we balance the need for body cameras with the right to privacy? Who pays for the purchase of the cameras, as well as the training, data storage and maintenance required to implement the programs? And how are all the suggested benefits of body worn cameras working out in practice?
Rialto, Mesa and Phoenix Test Body Cameras
These were the first to test police body cameras in the United States. They resulted in a study that saw a significant decrease in complaints against law enforcement officers wearing body cameras.
President Obama Requests Funding for Body Cameras
Following a fatal police shooting, the former president requests federal funding for body camera programs and police training to help carry the financial burden.
Federal Officers Required to Wear Body Cameras
The Justice Department mandates the use of body cameras for all federal agents that are executing search warrants or making pre-planned arrests.
Supreme Court Restricts Court’s Use of Footage
In the case of Commonwealth v Yusuf, the Supreme Court rules that footage obtained by a police officer’s body camera cannot be used in proceedings that are not related to the incident to which the officer was responding at the time.
While one side argues communities will feel safer knowing their encounter with the police is being recorded, the other side worries that some may respond negatively to being filmed, putting law enforcement officers’ safety at risk.
The two sides differ on whether the benefits of body cameras outweigh the violation of privacy of those being filmed.
Use in Court
Footage obtained by body cameras can be used as evidence in court proceedings. Supporters believe this can help convict police officers that do not abide by the law; opponents are worried the details that can be seen in hindsight will fail to take into account an officer’s frame of mind in the heat of the moment.
When police wear body cameras, they use less force.
Studies in several police departments have found that the number of use-of-force incidents decreases when police wear body cameras and closely follow the policies on when to use them.
Police body cameras provide independent verification of events.
The video and audio recorded by body cameras are more reliable than the human memory. It can be used as proof that an officer broke the law, or can exonerate them if they are falsely accused.
There are less complaints against law enforcement officers who wear body cameras.
Studies have shown that there are less complaints against police that are wearing body cameras.
Body camera footage can be used to train new officers.
Replaying real-life situations for new officers can illustrate the dos and don’ts when responding to an incident.
Police body cameras are powerful tools in domestic violence cases.
Survivors of domestic violence are often scared to report. If an officer wears a camera when arriving at the scene, it collects invaluable evidence that can independently verify what happened. This in turn gives survivors more confidence to step forward since there is video evidence to corroborate their testimony.
Implementing and maintaining body cameras programs can be expensive.
Police departments that use body cameras have to cover the cost of equipment, training, data storage, extra staff and maintenance. This is especially a heavy financial burden on smaller police departments.
Body cameras are a potential risk in sensitive situations.
Recording encounters with crime victims, witnesses or informants that fear retaliation could put them in unnecessary danger.
Recording encounters with the public invades their privacy.
Body cameras can make recordings in private settings and in sensitive situations, possibly exposing private medical conditions such as mental illness. The close-up images could be used by facial recognition software for example.
Body cameras can change the way people interact with law enforcement.
Some people feel pressured when they know they have a camera on them, which could cause them to retreat or even to act violently. Several US police forces have seen an uptick in assaults against law enforcement officers wearing body cameras.
Law enforcement officers will be judged based on the power of hindsight.
A camera will record everything within its range, which includes something an officer might not see or exclude something they can. What can be seen on a camera after the fact is not always a good judge of whether a person acted right in the moment.