Body Cameras for Police Officers: The Start of a New Standard?

September 25, 2014

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month sparked a large controversy and a discussion regarding the interactions that take place between police officers and civilians. Many people question if officers are being held appropriately responsible for the actions they take while on duty, and if eye-witness testimony is the most reliable source for this information. It can be difficult to decide what legal route to take, if any, when there are multiple accounts of an incident that has taken place. In the Brown case, the citizens of Ferguson claim that the victim’s hands were up, while the police claim that he was reaching for an officer’s gun; a debate which could be quickly cleared up if there had been an unbiased and reliable source to show what truly happened during the altercation.
This unfortunate situation has led to the realization that an honest source of this nature is predominately absent from the world of police work, and has subsequently prompted the suggestion to require all police officers to wear body cameras while on duty. Over 150,000 people have already signed a petition created on August 13, just four days after the shooting in Ferguson, to pass the “Mike Brown Law.” This law would “[c]reate a bill, sign into law, and set aside funds to require all state, county, and local police, to wear a camera.” Legislators have not taken any definitive action as of yet, but the petition has been recognized and acknowledged. The White House responded to the petition by agreeing that there are many advantages to body cameras, but that there are more questions to be asked and answered before a nationwide mandate for them is implemented.
The Department of Justice has released a report on its research about the benefits and drawbacks to requiring police body cameras. The research has shown that both officers and civilians conduct themselves with better behavior when they know they are being filmed. In many locations where body cameras are already worn there have been drastic decreases in force used by officers and the complaints against them. Another advantage of filming all police interactions is being able to have video proof of any incidents that take place, instead of having to rely solely on witness testimonies. This eliminates “he said, she said” arguments, and instead provides hard evidence of what actually happened and a transparency that is obviously lacking.
However, this research also lists the concerns that are raised if the cameras were to become mandatory. The introduction of new gadgets for police forces means the need for additional funding, training and regulations. Some departments are concerned with the cost of the cameras and equipment, which would range from around $300-$400 per camera at minimum. After the initial purchase, proper training would also need to be provided to teach officers how to correctly use the cameras for both recording and safety purposes. Other major concerns focus on the privacy issues that come with interacting with civilians, and also the regulations governing the storage and viewing of the footage. Would officers need permission to film everyone? Could they film inside someone’s home? Do the cameras need to be rolling constantly regardless of the situation? And after the footage is shot, where would it be stored and for how long? Would anyone be able to access the footage as part of public record, or would they need permission and a specific purpose? These are all questions that would need to be answered in order to create an effective uniform system of surveillance between all officers and their departments.
With a phone in everyone’s hands these days, and the use of social media so abundant, the threat of being filmed and it being made public is not altogether a new one. This persistent use of video has already brought to light thousands of interactions between officers and civilians, both good and bad.

If body cameras are approved for national use, these glimpses into daily exchanges will become the new norm; a deeply relied upon institution used for silencing debates and supplying impartial evidence.

Judging by the loud outcry after Michael Brown’s death, justice is not being served fairly in many areas of the country. If the government determines that these benefits body cameras bring to the table can help relieve this issue and ultimately profit the public and police alike, then this could be the new standard for every officer on every street.