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The Impact of Body-Mounted Cameras on Cops and Criminals

• August 28, 2013 • 10:00 AM


Will we soon see video cameras on the shoulder of every cop and corrections officer? Or will the high cost to both budgets and, potentially, individual privacy be enough to stop their adoption nationwide?

The panopticon is coming to a street near you—and it’s policing the police as well as the suspects.

The New York Times reported last week on the success that the police department in Rialto, California, has found first with audio recorders and now video cameras worn by officers on duty: “In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.”

Soon, says the Times, all uniformed officers in the Rialto department will wear cameras on every shift. The police chief there said that the presence of the cameras improves safety, transparency, and conviction rates. “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” said Chief Farrar. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

A former police chief from New York City (where stop-and-frisk tactics are an ongoing controversy) said that video cameras could help resolve the “he-said-she-said” phenomenon inherent in accusations of police misconduct, as well.

[P]olice officials from Oakland to Greensboro, N.C., all cited the swift resolution of complaints against officers as one of the primary benefits body cameras had offered. In some cases, citizens have come to the police station to file a complaint and decided not to after they were shown the video of the incident.

In other cases, though less frequently, officials said, accusations of officer misconduct have been corroborated by video from body cameras.

While several police departments around the country have begun experimenting with video cameras on duty, best practices have not yet been established across the board. For instance, different departments have different policies about how long the recorded video should be stored, and whether they will allow the video to be released to the media.

In addition to police officers on patrol, prisons are also testing the effectiveness of shoulder-mounted cameras. A recent case study tested the impact of the cameras in the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston, South Carolina (the largest in the state, with over 1,900 inmates).

The administrators there were unsatisfied with the immovable video cameras that already lined the hallways and common rooms. Shoulder-mounted video cameras were given to the pairs of “rapid response responders” who rush to the scene when, for instance, a fight breaks out, or an inmate is “combative or hostile” in some way, according to the study released by the National Jail Exchange. These responders are “authorized to use less-than-lethal munitions;” obviously, this makes it vital that they document and justify their use of force in any given confrontation.

After the trial run, the South Carolina prison administrators determined that this additional technology was worth the considerable investment, especially “when dealing with highly volatile situations.” According to their report, the cameras have kept both the corrections officers and the inmates accountable:

Our “Use of Force” incidents are now met with better tactics (less hands-on) and with better documentation and recordings for administrative review. The dual partner team recordings of each incident let us review it from different perspectives. The recorded video files are transferred to a compact disc for easy attachment to each “Use of Force” incident report, and the reports are forwarded up through the chain of command for review. The improved video content also helps us identify the need for any after-action training, which can be completed as necessary.

So will we soon see video cameras on the shoulder of every cop and corrections officer? Or will the high cost to both budgets and, potentially, individual privacy be enough to stop their adoption nationwide?

The federal judge who issued the stop-and-frisk ruling against New York City earlier this month actually mandated that the city test the shoulder-mounted cameras in precincts where stop-and-frisks were most frequent:

The goal of her order, Judge Scheindlin wrote, is to create an “objective record” of the stops so supervisors and courts can decide whether they’re legal and to encourage “lawful and respectful” interactions between police and suspects. She also expects the cameras to increase trust between officers and the public by providing a new form of evidence that can be used in settling complaints, which often come down to competing pieces of testimony.

But Ray Kelly, New York’s police commissioner, told Bob Schieffer on CBS that many questions about the cameras remained:

“When do you have the cameras on?” he asked. “When do you turn them off? Do you have it on during a domestic dispute? Do you have it on when somebody comes to give you confidential information? All of these issues have to be answered.”

Regardless, if similar precedents are any indication, the questions will likely be answered, and the costs will likely come to be seen as well justified. As the Times points out, “Experts increasingly say that body cameras are likely to become an industry standard over the coming years, just as cameras in patrol cars, which once prompted similar objections about privacy, have become commonplace in recent decades.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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