Body cameras prove an inevitable and challenging advancement for police departments across the country. Though nearly 98 percent of police interactions don’t involve the use or threat of force, the ever-increasing prevalence of personal recording devices like smartphones and the emotional impact of violent video clips may have contributed, at least in part, to plummeting public trust in police.
In this sense, an otherwise politically divided public’s overwhelming 92 percent support rate for police body camera usage is both symptom and cause in today’s video-clip culture. Whether the average American’s support comes from a desire for increased officer accountability, a better-behaved public in front of the lens, or some other factor, popular sentiment seems to include a foregone conclusion that body cams will drastically reduce the number of incidents that presumably make the devices so necessary in the first place.
Still, a growing base of research suggests the devices may have a more nuanced or even paradoxical effect, at least in this early stage of the technology’s adoption. One oft-cited paper, commonly known as the “Rialto study,” says use-of-force and civilian-complaint numbers dropped significantly when one department installed body cameras, while a popular European paper known as the “Rand study” indicates the devices increase rates of assault against officers by 15 percent. Body cams are too new, too untested, and too varied in their usage for empirical trends to emerge from the data: researchers still don’t know how many total departments use body cameras, or fully understand how policy and practice impact effectiveness in departments confirmed to have purchased them.
In other words, the jury on body cameras is still out in terms of their real-world benefits and drawbacks, and that’s before considering the infrastructural, procedural, and financial questions departments must address to implement them. This isn’t to say the devices won’t ultimately prove their worth, or that the sudden, substantial uptick in body camera-related funding is ill-advised. To the contrary, the unique combination of growing pains that have accompanied the technology thus far simply must be addressed before their full value is known.
“Perfectly imperfect”: Cameras capture images but don’t always convey situations
Footage of appropriate and excessive force alike can provoke extreme reactions from the viewing public. Personal biases and outside factors have a deep impact on a person’s perception of an event, especially when their understanding is already limited by the scope of a camera. For example, another New York Times feature gives a fascinating, interactive look at the way camera angles, sound, and belief can effectively turn one event into another in a viewer’s mind. In one instance, a famous survey using video assets from Scott v. Harris (a case already well-known for the Supreme Court’s unusual treatment of video evidence) demonstrated how biases can inform, mislead, and outright transform one’s viewing of an “objective” film clip.
On the other end of the spectrum, it is officers and departments that stand to lose when the camera captures more than responders can see in the moment. Alongside incomplete-picture examples, like cameras “losing sight” of a quick, threatening action that occurs between video frames, there are concerns about the body camera’s ability to convey reality. A camera in low light or other poor-visibility conditions may depict a very different situation from the one police respond to, making accurate reports seem dishonest, or generally calling the officer’s observational skill or ethics into question.
Report timing becomes the new “battleground” in body cam discussion
Indeed, situations like the above — along with the sometimes critical need for the institution to protect itself — have primed one of the biggest debates surrounding the body cam issue: Should officers be allowed to view footage prior to making statements or filing reports related to the matter at hand?
Voices on both sides make salient points. Though police are trained to make accurate observations under duress from the first day of cadet school, before-the-fact viewing would allow officers to recall minor-but-important details and fine-tune their memory to the reality in front of them, effectively using the footage they create as an enhanced notepad. On the inverse, opponents say responders could abuse the camera’s natural flaws, using footage to see what they can get away with “forgetting” in instances of questionable behavior. This has drawn particular criticism from detractors in San Diego, where the local NAACP branch has filed suit against the SDPD for changing policy to allow the practice. The ACLU, while not currently pursuing judicial relief, has criticized Columbus, OH police for similar policies.
When viewed as a tool to promote transparency and monitor police behavior, less direct control over a body cam and its footage means less chance for bad behavior. Critics may also point to research from Cambridge University suggesting use-of-force incidents raise by 71 percent when officers are given the ability to turn their cameras on and off, yet complaints drop by over 90 percent when every moment of every interaction is recorded. Police, on the other hand, understandably want greater control over devices that have the capability to create grave misunderstandings and might put their every action under a bigger, brighter spotlight than ever.
Body cams are a necessity — and so is adaptation
Looking past these challenges, perhaps the most promising thing about body cams is the fact that their adoption and assimilation are progressing so rapidly, and departments’ policies are adapting with them. Integration of disruptive technologies, added procedures, and enhanced public scrutiny can all be tough for any department, and policies surrounding body cam use will continue to evolve.
The public popularity surrounding body cam adoption represents a real want for change, and for departments, this means navigating the technology’s challenges and adapting as the technology evolves. That mandate will mean different things to different organizations, but the driving fact behind body cams is the same across the board: They are becoming a prevalent technology, and police departments would be well-advised to consider how they’ll approach the devices soon.