There is a new call to the police cameras. Here's why that may not be the right solution


"The key is to have realistic expectations about what body worn cameras can accomplish," says Michael White, co-author of "Cops, Cameras and Crises: The Potential and Dangers of Police Cameras." "… All they can't do is fix decades of tension between police departments and the minority community."

The bottom line is this: body cameras are not an easy solution. Rather, experts say, they are as effective as the departments that adopt them. And even then, they are just one piece of a very complicated system.

This is why.

Getting cameras is easy. Maintaining them is expensive

By 2016, nearly half of law enforcement agencies in the US had acquired used body cameras, according to a survey by the Office of Justice Statistics. Those numbers are now likely to be significantly higher because agencies have rapidly adopted the technology over the years, White said.
Body cameras are seen charging at the West Valley City Police Department in Utah.

But acquiring body cameras is only the beginning.

"Buying the cameras and handing the cameras over to the officers is the easy part," says White, who is also a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University. "Then it becomes extraordinarily complicated and expensive."

  • There he is cost of the cameras themselves – which can vary from approximately $ 400 to $ 800 each, depending on the make and model of the camera and how many orders from a department.
  • There he is high costs associated with storing video recorded by cameras, which can cost between $ 15 and $ 99 per officer per month. States have different laws on how long video must be preserved that could serve as potential evidence. For the rest of the video footage, police departments generally set the policies, ranging from 30 days in Boston to five years in Atlanta, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
  • Then there is the personnel costs associated with maintaining the footagesays Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of police for Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Police departments should have employees who review the videos, respond to requests for public records, and perform other administrative functions.

Police departments do not always have a clear plan for their use.

For body cameras to be effective, a police department must have an adequate plan.

The Justice Department has a checklist that law enforcement agencies can refer to as they develop policies on how body cameras are used. The International Association of Police Chiefs also has a set of guidelines on what to consider, such as when to activate a camera, who reviews images, etc.
A police officer is seen using a body camera during a demonstration in Atlanta on May 31.

But in the police departments of the United States, that is not always the case.

"There are a variety of ways that a program can fail," says White. "Certainly one of the ways is that a department has not properly planned the program."

At least 19 states and Washington, D.C., require police departments to develop written body camera policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In other locations, departments have been tasked with doing so.
Departments acquire body cameras for various reasons. Some departments improve officers' accountability and community relations. Others may be able to improve training, improve the quality of the evidence, or make cases easier to process.
New York will require its state soldiers to use body cameras on patrol
In 2017, two organizations, Upturn, a progressive non-profit organization advocating for justice around technology, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, evaluated the body camera policies of 75 local police departments in eight criteria. The measures included whether the department's rules specified when officers were to register; and whether officers were allowed to review images before writing reports.

At that time, no department fully met all eight criteria, the scorecard found.

"(Body camera policies) are often written in conjunction with police unions and are often implemented to benefit the interests of the department and the interests of officers in a way that I believe does not deliver on the promises that mayors and the police chiefs have done to the communities, "says Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn.

But Casstevens says police departments should develop their rules in consultation with the communities they serve.

"The arguments arise when a police department simply decides to implement a camera program without public intervention and simply says, 'Well, that's how we're going to run the program,'" he says.

Body cameras are not always on

One problem that police departments specifically struggle with is getting officers to comply with turning on their cameras when they're supposed to.

"All the good will that a police chief can build with the community in terms of implementing the body worn camera program and whatever else they are trying to do in terms of reform and compromise can be lost almost immediately if there is a critical incident like a shooting and there should have been footage, but it wasn't because the officer wasn't activated, "he says.

A West Valley City Utah patrol officer begins a body camera recording by pressing a button on his chest.

Most agencies require officers to activate their body cameras when they are sent on a duty call, says Daniel Lawrence, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. That could mean turning on the camera while the officer is in the car, or when they arrive on the scene, he says.

Having body cameras at all times can create privacy concerns for both officers and members of the public, some argue in law enforcement. But there are technologies that aim to address the officer's discretion to activate a body camera.
Some models have a "pre-event storage" setting that captures 30 to 120 seconds of video before the officer presses the button. Others will automatically turn on when an officer activates the car's siren, gets out of the car, or pulls his gun, says Lawrence.
In February, the New York City Civil Complaints Review Board (CCRB) released a report detailing the challenges the agency had in obtaining evidence from body cameras used by New York police officers in the first half of 2019.

One of the most important problems investigators noted was the inability of officers to activate body cameras in accordance with New York Police policy, according to the report. Some officers turned the cameras on late, while others turned them off early. Still others did not light them at all, according to the report.

New body cameras begin to record with the drawing of a pistol

The reasons why officers can't activate their body cameras vary, White said. In some cases, they may forget, while in cases where encounters escalate too quickly, they may not have enough time. Officers may also choose not to activate out of concern for an individual's privacy. And there may be times when an officer intentionally turns off the camera to escape responsibility for misconduct, he says.

A 2015 study of the Anaheim Police Department's body camera program found that while officers were expected to record all interactions with community members, the extent to which they did so varied widely. The study, conducted by the Urban Institute, found that officers activated their body cameras more frequently for crime-related interactions, even though such interactions only accounted for about 6% of their overall activities.

Because officers were less likely to activate their body cameras for more routine interactions, such as traffic stops, there could be challenges around investigating citizen complaints about those incidents, the authors wrote.

Even when there are images, PDs don't always launch it

Body camera images, when they exist, are not always made public.

Upturn reviewed the fatal police shootings tracked by the Washington Post, and found that of 105 police killings captured by body cameras in 2017, there were 40 cases in which the images were not made public. In 26 of the 65 cases in which the video was released, the footage was not available until a month or later, according to the analysis.

"We have seen many, many cases where there have been body camera images, especially of a fatal police shooting," says Yu. "And after those incidents, police departments and cities and prosecutors often fail to publish those images in a timely manner."

Police shootings highlight concerns about body cameras
In some cases, prosecutors argue that the body camera video should not be released publicly until it is presented as evidence in court, fearing it may contaminate the group of jurors. That was the case in the 2016 Sylville Smith shooting at the hands of a Milwaukee police officer. Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was eventually found not guilty.

Whether or not body camera images are subject to public disclosure depends on state law.

Connecticut, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas generally classify body camera recordings as public records, although there are exceptions that allow police to withhold or write certain videos, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

In other states, including Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Oregon and South Carolina, body camera images are not subject to open record requests, although some exceptions allow certain people to access recordings in certain situations, NCSL said.

Protesters protest against police brutality in Los Angeles on October 22, 2015.

Casstevens says that when police departments withhold body camera images, the department's policies should make it clear to the public why it is not published.

"There should only be specific cases where the video should not be subject to FOIA," he says. "And that's if you're protecting an ongoing investigation, or you're trying to protect the identity of the victim or something."

But if the goal of body cameras is to help provide accountability, other forms of video have been more beneficial, Yu says.

The viewers' video, not body camera images, drew widespread attention to the death of George Floyd and ultimately sparked protests across the country. New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured by a cell phone with Eric Garner in a choke.
When it comes to policing, strong guard dogs are the exception.

"It all comes down to who is in control of the footage, who is willing to release it to the public, to really show what happens every day on American streets," he says.

The nation has come a long way since calls for American police officers to use body cameras began. Technology is now the norm among police departments, and cameras are generally viewed by communities as a good thing.
It may seem ironic, then, that renewed calls to body cameras now coincide with calls to eliminate or abolish the police.

But for body cameras to function as intended, experts say they must be taken alongside other systemic reforms.

Because what's really in question, says Lawrence, is how Police departments treat civilians, whether the cameras are on or not.


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