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Body-worn cameras could revolutionize policing in America. The cameras, experts say, will hold both police and citizens more accountable for their actions. A recent report by the Department of Justice cites a study, conducted with California’s Rialto Police Department, showing that when officers wore body cameras, there was a 60 percent drop in use of force by police officers and an 88 percent drop in citizen complaints.
Since the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, police departments around the nation have rushed to equip their officers with body-worn cameras to document police interactions with civilians. The Department of Justice announced a $20 million program this year to help police departments purchase cameras, which can cost as much as $600 each.
If they’re not paying attention — they’re looking at me, looking in my eyes — they won’t see it. And they’re not going know they’re recorded. I will not tell them.”
Police Officer, Chesapeake, VA Police Department
It’s boom times for the companies that sell the cameras. Taser International, known for its controversial nonlethal weapons, has become the leading manufacturer of body-worn cameras used by police. Taser’s sales of those cameras went from $3.8 million in 2012 to more than $57 million in 2014. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the company, says Taser has “41,000 thousand [body cameras] on the streets that we’ve built, and that’s as of the first quarter of 2015.”
Police body cameras are now in more than 5,000 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments, in cities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chesapeake, Virginia. Chesapeake’s police were among the first in the nation to experiment with body cams, in 2008. Now 255 officers in the city use the cameras. It cost roughly $1,800 to outfit each officer, says Col. K.L. Wright, Chesapeake’s chief of police.
"Since we went full on into deploying the cameras on everyone who works in the field, [citizen] complaints have gone down about 44 percent,” says Chief Wright.
Officer Albert Fargo, an 11-year veteran of the Chesapeake Police Department, says that when people know the camera is recording, they act differently. But he adds that many “people don’t see the camera. It’s very small. It’s on my shoulder. If they’re not paying attention — they’re looking at me, looking in my eyes — they won’t see it. And they’re not going know they’re recorded. I will not tell them.”
That raises some troubling questions about individual privacy and police body cameras, according to Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. He says, “Body cameras have a very real potential to invade a lot of people’s privacy. Police officers go into people’s homes. A significant proportion of police calls are for domestic violence. They’re seeing people at the worst moments of their lives. They’re seeing accident victims in cars as they die. There’s a lot of things that police officers see that you don’t want to end up on YouTube.”
And yet, he says, the ACLU is in favor of arming cops with body cameras. That’s because the cameras not only record interactions with civilians but also monitor the behavior of police officers. “There’s good reason to believe,” he says, “that if they’re done right, body cameras can really help this very serious, widespread problem we have of police abuse.”
Another problem is that because this technology is so new, policies and procedures differ widely from department to department about who can access the footage. For example, in Chesapeake, most police body-cam videos are kept completely inaccessible to the general public. But in Seattle the police department posts most of its recordings on YouTube after faces and other identifiers have been blurred out. In fact, Seattle is so transparent that, by request, citizens may view unredacted video of almost any DUI incident recorded by an officer.
Wright asks, if “your neighbor wants to see the video, does your neighbor have a right to see what took place in your house? I’m not so certain that they do.”
As body cameras become standard issue for more police officers around the country, we’re only beginning to understand the consequences of what it means to record everything.
Body camera sales soar
Axon body cameras being assembled at Taser International in Scottsdale, Arizona. Taser’s sales of body cameras went from $3.8 million in 2012 to more than $57 million in 2014.
“Unfortunately, police officers are people,” says Fargo, “and they don’t always make the right decision. We just don’t, because we’re not perfect. And there’s probably going to be a time where the officer makes a bad decision — it’s on camera, and it’s going to protect the citizen. And there’s going to be time where the citizens don’t cooperate or act like they’re supposed to with the police, and it’s to protect the officer. So I think it goes both ways.”