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Police Body Cams

The shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has triggered ongoing protests, led to investigations by the local authorities, the FBI, and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and commanded national media attention for months. But one of the almost unnoticed events prompted by what happened in Ferguson will likely have one of the biggest and most lasting impacts: the adoption of police body cameras by departments all over the country.

There are currently 5,000 police departments now using body cameras. The police chief in Atlanta, Georgia, has recently stated that he wants his department to wear body cameras, but that they need to decide on the right camera model. The Savannah, Georgia, police department is also planning to use body cameras. In Ferguson, there are currently 53 police officers who work 12 hour shifts that share 25 body cameras. The cameras do not have enough battery power or storage space to be left on for an entire shift, so when they are turned on and off is an issue; any gaps in taping are open to question. In neighboring St. Louis, the police department is ready to issue body cameras to all officers that interact with the public. The program was accelerated due to the events in Ferguson. However, implementation will wait until the officers are trained in camera management, including the issue of activation and data management.

The idea behind the use of body cameras--and dashboard cameras before them--is the theory that a third-party observer has a positive effect on people's behavior. When people know they are being watched, or in this case recorded, they tend to act more appropriately. A study conducted by the Justice Department and the Research Forum bears this out: a pilot program of police officers with body cameras in Rialto, California,

saw a 60% reduction in the use of force by officers and an 88% reduction in citizen complaints. A similar study in Mesa, Arizona had comparable results: a 75% reduction in use-of-force complaints, and a 40% reduction in total complaints. What these studies show, and what police departments across the country are finding out, is that body cameras protect both the public and the police.

However, there are still issues to be resolved with the implementation of body camera programs. The issue of when a camera should be activated, mentioned above, is a difficult one. Placing that decision in the discretion of the officer undermines the intent of the body camera, which is to ensure that an entire encounter between an officer and a citizen is recorded. In addition to questions regarding activation, there are issues surrounding proper storage; the content of tapes may be evidence in future trials, or it may be irrelevant footage. Either way, it needs to be stored safely, where no one can leak it or improperly view it.

Improper viewing leads directly into another concern with body cameras: privacy. Some argue that the use of body cameras on police officers introduces yet another way in which our privacy is violated and information about us is stored against our wishes. Should the body camera be activated when an officer enters someone's home, where there is an expectation of privacy? Should an interview of a victim of a violent crime be recorded? Will body cameras have a chilling effect on confidential informants?

All of these concerns need to be addressed. But as with dashboard cameras, where initial resistance gave way to enthusiastic cooperation, police and public alike should welcome the opportunity for enhanced safety that body cameras offer. Perhaps this will be the lasting legacy of Ferguson.

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