There is a considerable debate in the United States over the effectiveness of body camera use by law enforcement. Since the Rodney King beating in 1992, video tapings have brought about a real need for change in apprehension and prosecution of suspects. Recent events regarding police shootings of unarmed suspects have put the attention on police departments across America. With the use of technology, society is now getting a clearer idea of what happens in some traffic stops where loss of life occurs. In the age of YouTube and other social media sites, society utilizes their cameras in much higher volumes which leads to high profile cases where questionable actions on both the part of the officers and suspects exist. In most of the cases, deaths occur, prompting mass protests that further damage the credibility of the police departments in question. Protests have occurred in the last year beginning in Ferguson, Missouri, and continuing even today in places like Baltimore, Maryland, which shows a clear division between law enforcement and communities being policed. Video evidence has been an essential element that triggered the call for change, and without it, elevated the level of mistrust in many urban communities. Because the value of life is at stake, the debate is at an all-time high in cities currently dealing with public outcry. Camera technology use by law enforcement reduces officer use of force and citizen complaints of abuse, aids in prosecutions if the use of force was excessive, and benefits the public by providing transparency. Body cameras are essential to protecting the rights of the officers, the suspects, and the legal system.
Currently, every police department in the United States is debating camera technology. Based on research from Reuters, 16 departments use cameras, twenty major cities are in the beginning stages of implementing camera use, and some departments like Suffolk County, NY, believe the costs are too high to achieve at this time (as cited by Edwards & Athavaley 2015). The cost of the maintenance of the program has been a major issue that budgets around the country can not support. Most departments believe that cameras are useful tools but are hesitant to begin such a program because of costs associated with upkeep. According to Edwards & Athavaley (2015), “More than a half-dozen companies are competing to supply the nation’s nearly 700,000 sworn officers with body cameras, which can cost between $350 and $700 apiece” (para. # 2). Opponents argue that the cost of maintenance would not be feasible based on the budget crisis most states encounter on a yearly basis. Edwards and Athavaley (2015) writes, “In addition to the cost of cameras, expensive systems are required to process and archive the many hours of video footage produced by the cameras, and the cost of storing archived footage can dwarf the initial equipment costs” (para. # 4). Opponents use only the cost of such a program without considering the costs associated with the use of force complaints and subsequent payouts for lawsuits frequently settled out of court. In addition, other factors such as officer and suspect behaviors, legalities, and public protest would counteract the subsequent costs. The legalities associated with lawsuits and loss of life would also drop which would balance the cost of such a program.
Supporters also believe that both cops and suspects often contribute to the end result of the encounters. Cameras would be able to show the events that occurred, help in training officers, and aid in legal repercussions of the stop. In 2012, 95 officers died in the line of duty. In the same year, 52,901 officers were assaulted. Also, there were 412 people killed by on-duty police. (FBI 2013). The statistics have been consistent in each year following showing this is an ongoing problem in America. In the months of February and March of 2015, 175 deaths occurred at the hands of the police that some site as heading toward the highest mortality rate of suspects to date. With a significant number of people affected yearly, the cost of life outweighs the cost of the unit. In addition, credible law enforcement agencies like Rialto County shows that cameras reduce the actual use of force complaints dramatically. Without camera technology, the costs associated with the use of force and wrongful death lawsuits by far outweigh the cost of maintenance. Most importantly, it reinstates public trust damaged by unknown encounters with the public.
Research by Rialto County, California Police Chief William Farrar shows that officers who wear body cameras are less likely to use force and are more conscientious of their actions. Farrar says, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better. And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.” (as cited by Lovett 2013). The Rialto County Police Department, as well as a handful of departments around the country, have implemented body camera use although it is not currently mandatory in the United States. Participating agencies found a dramatic drop in both police use of force and suspect complaints. Rialto County and Police Chief Farrar implemented the program with the intent to document and collect data in an attempt to prove the benefits of such a program. What Farrar found was that the complaints went from an annual 36 to three in the first year of the program. After such results, Farrar implemented body camera use as a mandatory requirement for his officers in Rialto County.
Fig.1: Random assignment pattern of camera use showing variables of testing including shift, and experiment/controlled participation by all primary officers who has contact with the public. Random and unknown participation helped to validate that officers using cameras awareness changed their behavior patterns.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s definition of use of force as, “The amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” (as cited by USDOJ 2015). Before said experiment, use of force and complaint data were in the double digits. After the camera operation had begun, use of force and citizen complaints fell to single digits within one month.
The research shows that shifts, where officers did not use cameras, had two times the complaints than ones that did implement the technology. Global data also collected shows that in comparison, every 1000 interactions produced a drop of 2.5 times the previous yearly rate. The data collected was in response to police behavior and did not take into account any evidence as to how it changes suspect accountability. The police chief’s primary target was in finding data to show that video camera use is beneficial in helping his officers behave and maintain a self-awareness of behavior patterns. However, with a significant reduction of complaints, it lends credibility to the mandatory federal implementation of such a program.
On Saturday, April 4, 2015, Officer Michael Slager, shot unarmed suspect Walter Scott eight times in the back after stopping him for a routine misdemeanor traffic stop. The officer’s original statement said he shot Scott after the suspect stole his taser, and he feared for his life. On Tuesday, April 8, 2015, a video recorded by a bystander showed the officer firing at Scott’s back from a distance. The video also appears to show the officer retrieving his taser twenty feet from the scene and throwing it near Scott’s body in what indicates he was setting the stage for his probable cause theory. The Charleston Police Department became the topic of conversation around the world because of the video’s content. Interestingly, Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers received federal funding on February 2, 2015, of $275,000 and began phasing in body cameras to 115 officers specifically in the North Charleston area. However, Officer Slager was not one of the officers who used the technology. Since the video came to light, Driggers immediately implemented mandatory body camera use for all of his active duty officers in hopes of preventing future complaints in his county. Some members in the legal community believe the subsequent payout from the inevitable lawsuit may exceed ten million dollars. The cost of the lawsuit lends credibility to the cost and effect of such a program. Also, it may have even deterred Slager from making the decision to shoot Scott after he fled apprehension. Other departments around the country have also reported a considerable reduction in complaints against officers, signifying that the officers are aware that their actions are subject to an inquiry at all times.
With the help of the dash camera in Slager’s unit and the bystander recording, a clearer picture emerged that aided prosecution in charging him with first-degree murder. If the video camera in the cruiser were the only video evidence available, Slager’s story would have been accepted without question. Since the bystander video surfaced, Officer Slager was fired from the police department and was charged by the District Attorney.
Body cameras could help in prosecuting officers when video evidence exists where apparent actions of wrongdoing are present. Securing a guilty verdict is difficult, and often deters prosecutors from charging officers. Very few officers to date have been found liable for any crimes committed while on duty where officers believed their life was in danger regardless of witness testimony. The countless cases not prosecuted lends credibility to the difficult position prosecutors find themselves in charging anyone in the law enforcement field with a crime even when apparent wrongdoing is evident. The rate of abuse complaints to convictions indicates that there is a high level of public trust currently in society. However, as more videos emerge, one might wonder if the video evidence will hurt that high regard.
According to The American Association of Police Chiefs, there are five components for use of force, “physical, chemical, electronic, impact, and firearm” (as cited by USDOJ 2015). In addition to these components, The Bureau of Statistics cites, “the legal test of excessive force…is whether the police officer reasonably believed that such force was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose” (USDOJ 2015). With only a standard of belief of danger, it creates a gray area where the intent based on belief hinders prosecutions.
Some people argue that the cameras will deter both suspects and officers from behaving badly, while others argue that the cameras will not help in resolving the use of force by officers.
Howard Wasserman, Florida International University College of Law, writes, “Body cameras are a generally good policy idea. But the rhetoric surrounding them erroneously treats them as the single guaranteed solution to the problem of excessive force and police-citizen conflicts, particularly by ignoring the limitations of video evidence and the difficult questions of implementing the body camera program” (2014).
Wasserman suggests, “The public discussion needs less absolute rhetoric and more open recognition of the limitations of this technology” (2014). The fear exists that if police are being policed, it may hinder officers from doing what is necessary to investigate or apprehend suspects. It leads society to question the effectiveness of such a program where mandatory body cameras are used as a tool when officers apprehend suspects. It also further opens the debate into other areas where additional programs might be more appropriate based on crime and statistics. While some might argue that cameras do not address race or crime, it does lend a supportive role to society in making sure that the law is upheld by all members of society. If, as Police Chief Farrar believes, the cameras do change an officer’s actions because he knows he is on camera, the camera may do more than just record. It may also help in establishing an acceptable way that officers are allowed to behave. The added benefit would counteract the argument by people like Wasserman, who believes the camera will have no additional benefit to society.
Public opinion may be the most important issue that is affected by body cameras. The trust of the people diminishes significantly if the transparency does not exist. Public trust is essential to maintaining the level of integrity that society affords officers. Officers could use video to provide the public with a transparency that has been lacking in the past. During each encounter, three sides are always present; the officer, the suspect, and the truth (which may represent one or the other, or indicate both were complicit). The first two are often based on opinion and beliefs while the video reflects the reality of actual events. In providing video camera footage of actual events, officers and suspects understand that their actions are subject to public scrutiny. While most officers and citizens follow the law, cameras would aid in identifying those that do not.
White (2014) writes, “Benefit claims are that body-worn cameras increase transparency in police encounters and victim views of police legitimacy; deter police wearers of the cameras from abusive behavior and citizens from resisting police initiatives; have evidentiary benefits to support arrests and prosecution; and provide opportunities for police training.”
In the research by Rialto County, their research provided a clear example that when officers know they are on a video, it modifies their behavior to that which the public will accept and defend. Recordings instill confidence and support to all parties involved in protecting the individuals involved from unwanted events occurring. Cameras hold all parties responsible for upholding and following the laws as written. The safeguard provides for a safer community for people to live. The video also provides a direct relationship between police procedures and public trust.
In order to maintain justice, the public must trust those responsible for upholding the law. While most officers serve the public with a high regard for public safety, recent videos have emerged that reflects a picture of unlawfulness by some officers. With successful campaigns of body camera use by such departments as the Rialto Police Department, a mandatory requirement in the United States would help in reducing the use of force complaints, and will instill a level of transparency to the public. The transparency allows the justice system to proceed in an unbiased condition where the rights of all parties involved remain intact. The laws are the only tool society has in maintaining justice. Police officers remain the primary source of such justice. However, bad officers often hurt the credibility of those sworn to uphold the laws. Video recordings are now a viable source because of the use of technology. While cost is still a major flaw in the program, departments around the country are reporting favorable results that show a promising tool that will make a difference in police and suspect encounters. Society puts to use the available resources while maintaining the level of transparency with the public. In so doing, it allows justice to proceed in an unbiased direction where the word of the officer and the word of the suspect will no longer be necessary. Video evidence remains the most reliable source in seeking the truth in situations where both the officer and suspect may interpret the situations differently.
Death Penalty Information Center. Innocence and the Dealth Penalty. DPIC Washington (2015).
Edwards, Julie & Athavaley, Anjali. “High Costs Hinder outfitting of U.S. cops with body cameras” Reuters. (2015 April 23). Retrieved on April 24, 2015 from website http://news.yahoo.com/high-costs-hinder-outfitting-u-cops-body-cameras-110532434–finance.html
Federal Bureau of Investigations. National Press Releases. (2013). Retrieved on March 31, 2015 from website http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2012-statistics-on-law-enforcement-officers-killed-and-assaulted
Garrett, Brandon L. “Judging innocence.” Columbia Law Review (2008): 55-142.
Harris, David A. “Picture This: Body Worn Video Devices (‘Head Cams’) as Tools for Ensuring Fourth Amendment Compliance by Police.” Texas Tech Law Review, Forthcoming (2010).
Lovett, Ian. “In California, a Champion for Police Cameras” New York Times. (2013, August 21). Retrieved on April 3, 2015 from website http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/22/us/in-california-a-champion-for-police-cameras.html?hp&_r=2&
Police Foundation. “SELF-AWARENESS TO BEING WATCHED AND SOCIALLY-DESIRABLE BEHAVIOR: A FIELD EXPERIMENT ON THE EFFECT OF BODY-WORN CAMERAS ON POLICE USE-OFFORCE” (2015). Retrieved on April 10, 2015 from http://www.policefoundation.org/sites/g/files/g798246/f/201303/The%20Effect%20of%20Body-Worn%20Cameras%20on%20Police%20Use-of-Force.pdf
United States Department of Justice (USDOJ). “Use of Force” The International Association of Police Chiefs. USDOJ. (2015). Retrieved on April 21, 2015 from website http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=1374
Wasserman, Howard M. “Moral Panics and Body Cameras.” Wash. UL Rev. Commentaries (Nov. 18, 2014) (2014): 14-31.
White, Michael D., Booz Allen Hamilton, and United States of America. “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence.” (2014).