Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a $20 million Justice Department pilot project to provide body cameras to selected police departments nationwide, to help encourage and study their use.
While dash cams that record from inside a police car are now widely deployed nationwide, body cams are currently in use in a small minority of police departments. The systems are expensive—with an initial investment for cameras, and ongoing costs for data storage and technology management.
The police department in Rialto, California, has been using body cams since 2012. They’re small, cigarette-lighter-sized video cameras mounted to a helmet or uniform, with built-in data storage for videos, connected to a small battery pack. The cameras — Rialto’s are supplied by Taser International — are supposed to be turned on by the officer before any significant encounter with a member of the public, a witness or a suspect. That means everything from a routine traffic stop, to a domestic dispute, to a robbery in progress.
Rialto was the subject of one of the first controlled academic studies of the impact of body cams on policing.
Rialto police chief Tony Farrar was studying for a master’s degree at the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology in the U.K. in 2012. He worked with several of his professors to craft a study on the roll out of body cams in his police department. Farrar obtained approximately $100,000 in state and federal grants to purchase cameras (at about $1,000 each, plus the hardware and software necessary to upload and store video from each officer’s shift).
Farrar says the results of that initial study were impressive—so impressive, he outfitted the entire department, all 106 sworn officers in the small Southern California city of 100,000, in 2013.
“We’ve got less officer complaints, less times that we have to use force,” says Farrar. Complaints against police by civilians declined by 88 percent in the first year body cams were being worn, according to the Cambridge study; use-of-force by police declined by 60 percent. Violent incidents against the police also declined — the Cambridge researchers speculate that people interacting with police know they’re being videotaped, and moderate their behavior as a result. Farrar says the department’s rate of successful prosecution improved, because of better evidence being gathered on the body cams.
Farrar’s conclusion: “Hopefully, we have an increase in public trust and credibility and the overall legitimacy of policing.”
Still, not everyone in the department was on board to hit the streets “packing video.” Farrar says, “some of the more seasoned officers had a few more questions.” A young patrol officer in the department, Randall Peterson, who is a former Marine with two and a half years on the force, agrees. He says there was “controversy” when the body cams were rolled out.
But he himself quickly came to accept them as a valuable addition to his standard procedure and gear when he goes out patrolling his beat. On a recent day shift, he was looking for witnesses and a suspect in an alleged assault. If he found them, he planned to videotape everything that transpired. For the suspect in particular, he says, “there’s a huge potential for him to either make a spontaneous statement that he did commit the offense, or, say he decides he wants to run or fight, then it’s going to catch any offense that he commits after the fact during my contact.”
“A big part of my job is protecting myself from civil liability,” says Peterson. “And why not help myself? That’s how I see it.”
Chief Farrar says all the videotaping hasn’t crimped his veteran officers’ style—on patrol or at headquarters.
“Officers sometimes have a very unique way of relieving stress and tension, and pulling pranks on each other,” says Farrar. “I went downstairs to briefing the other day and they kind of ripped me apart. We don’t arbitrarily search videos looking for officers that did something wrong or may have said something wrong.”
Officer Peterson feels comfortable in his privacy while on the job. He says he videotapes what’s required, and is careful to control his mode of expression in front of civilians. But, “I have the ability to turn the camera off when I want to tell a joke to my partner. And I honestly should have the professionalism to realize that if I’m in front of the public, I should probably keep my inappropriate jokes to myself.”
Chief Farrar says he absolutely does want his officers to be conscious that they’re being recorded, to temper their behavior in stressful law enforcement situations.
“If you have a long foot chase, or a long car chase, or you make a very good arrest, the officers want to congratulate each other or whatever,” says Farrar. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate to be high-fiving at the end of a car chase.”
However, inhibiting police officers from acting as they otherwise would, absent a camera recording their every word and move, is seen as a problem by law enforcement officers who oppose mandatory use of body cams. And it’s also a concern shared by some criminal justice experts.
Professor Maki Haberfeld chairs the program in law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Haberfeld predicts that increasingly ubiquitous video-monitoring of police, plus police officials, prosecutors and civil rights lawyers scrutinizing all that video for evidence of misconduct, will make officers on the beat afraid to use adequate force when they need to.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they will second-guess themselves, they will hesitate, and it can potentially create a danger,” she says.
Haberfeld is also skeptical as to whether more videotaping will really help good cops defend their use of force, or protect the public when bad cops go over the line.
“Things can be understood out of context even if they’re recorded,” says Haberfeld. “This is going to be scrutinized against standards that are totally unrealistic, by people who do not understand how police work is done properly. Certain situations appear to be abusive when they’re not.”
Of course, police could just turn off their video recorders when they’re in a dangerous situation, or if a situation has the potential to make them look bad. But that would violate police policy in most jurisdictions where body cams are in use.
And, in response to the potential for police to fail to record incidents or attempt to manipulate what has been recorded, some critics of police behavior are already calling for body cams to be set or designed to record all the time, throughout an officer’s shift. Then officers wouldn’t have to turn the cameras on to record an incident; in fact, they wouldn’t be able to turn the body cams off.
“It’s oppressive to have to work on-camera every minute of the day,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a public-interest legal group formerly affiliated with the ACLU. “It should only be done where it’s really necessary. But there are cases where it may be necessary, like police officers. It’s literally a matter of life and death, and experience has shown that we can’t detect police abuse any other way.”