However one views what happened Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., it is easy to agree with the call by Michael Brown’s parents for the use of body cameras by police as a positive outcome of the tragic death of their son.
An array of legislative proposals to reform law enforcement have developed in the aftermath of police killings of African-Americans such as Brown, Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, John Crawford and Atlanta’s Kathryn Johnston.
These proposals include limiting no-knock warrants; repealing the state’s stand-your-ground law; the demilitarization of police; and grand jury reform, among others. All of these issues will be debated during the upcoming legislative session, and that debate will likely be contentious.
A proposal for which there may be an emerging consensus is the adoption of police body cameras. A recent poll indicated 91 percent of the public agree police should wear body cameras as they patrol our streets. Increasingly, the public believes the use of body cameras will result in fewer instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement.
Research shows this is true. In a study of body cameras in Rialto, Calif., the use of force by that city’s police department dropped by 59 percent. But body cameras also affect the actions of citizens who come into contact with the police. In the Rialto study, there was an 88 percent decline in citizen complaints made against officers. False complaints are less likely when body cameras are used. Body cameras will protect both the public and the police.
I believe that, in the best of all worlds, Georgia ought to require all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, the cost and maintenance of the equipment is a valid concern that must be considered.President Barack Obama’s law enforcement reform initiative includes $75 million to cover half the cost of body cameras for 50,000 officers. That program would provide equipment to only about 8 percent of the United States’ 630,000 law enforcement officers if Congress funds the initiative. Therefore, if the more-than 25,000 officers in Georgia are to be equipped, it will be the responsibility of state and local governments.
It has been gratifying that some Georgia law enforcement agencies have moved toward adopting body cameras.
The Atlanta Police Department began studying the use of cameras earlier this year. After the killing of Brown in Ferguson, Atlanta community groups such as the Gen Y Project and the United Youth Adult Conference implored the city to move quickly in adopting body cameras. Recently, the City Council approved issuing a request for proposal for 1,200 units. The Savannah Police Department is considering using body cameras after the September shooting death of a suspect. Other departments throughout the state are considering body cameras.
Ultimately, state and local governments should see these expenditures as well spent, in that they could save a city or county millions of dollars from huge civil settlements. Atlanta settled a civil suit for $4.9 million in the 2006 Kathryn Johnston killing. Habersham County settled for $2 million with the family of pastor Jonathan Ayers, who was wrongfully killed by a county drug task force in 2009.
Adopting body cameras by police is a complex process. Data storage, privacy concerns, training and protocols must be considered. And it is critical to keep in mind, as the discussion of body cameras evolves, that they are only one part of re-creating the relationship between police and the community.
True “community policing” has to be implemented so that African-American neighborhoods and other communities of color will see law enforcement not as an occupying force, but as partners in making neighborhoods safe. One of the casualties of recent police shootings is public trust. It is time for that trust to be restored.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat, represents District 39.
Reject police body cameras
We Charge Genocide
The non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer accused in the death of Eric Garner, came just two days after President Barack Obama announced his support for body cameras to address police violence.
The fact Garner’s death was filmed raises justifiable criticisms over the proposed cameras’ potential effectiveness. At the same time, large national protests were due in part to the horror of witnessing Garner’s death on instant video replay. The non-indictment of Pantaleo demonstrates that systemic disregard for black life cannot be solved by police officers wearing cameras.
We Charge Genocide was formed to center the voices and experiences of black and brown youth disproportionately and violently targeted by the Chicago Police Department. Part of our efforts to uplift and support young people’s experiences and voices is training Chicagoans to “copwatch,” or film the police. In the face of rampant police abuse, watching the cops shifts power dynamics so police are no longer able to act with impunity.As part of a larger organized effort to combat police violence, copwatching can be a tool for communities challenging police violence and racial profiling. For example, videos recording abusive behavior during police stops in New York City have been effective in shifting public consciousness when combined with broader organizing against Stop and Frisk.
Thus, while we support recording the police, We Charge Genocide recognizes it is fundamental that civilians be the ones holding the cameras. Video documentation can support the stories of those targeted by the police, perspectives often ignored by mainstream media and discounted in courts. When police control the cameras, those cameras serve as a tool for police violence.
It is clear that an increasing number of police departments have come to the conclusion that body cameras will support police narratives rather than challenge them. We are also concerned by accounts that such cameras will “malfunction” or simply be turned off during critical moments. Finally, we believe turning the cops into walking cameras is nothing but an expansion of the surveillance state, the fruit of a poisonous tree.
We Charge Genocide vehemently rejects any suggestion that victims of police violence who committed or were suspected of committing crimes deserved their treatment. Instead, we demand the valuing of all black lives, and challenge others to re-evaluate the impact of hypercriminalization on communities constantly patrolled by police.
Finally, We Charge Genocide believes the current calls for body cameras rely on an uncritical view of policing, one in which police need only be reformed to become safe for our communities. On the contrary, policing is an inherently violent and racist institution. Accordingly, we oppose all reforms that give additional resources to police departments.
To this end, We Charge Genocide will continue to work for initiatives that serve our communities, including reparations for victims of police torture, civilian police accountability projects, and initiatives for data transparency in police activities.
Any viable resolution to the issue of police violence must involve creative solutions, defunding our militarized police departments, and investment in community services. We ask that you join with members of your community to reject body cameras as a band-aid solution in the struggle against police violence and instead seek holistic, transformative solutions to community needs.
We Charge Genocide is a grassroots, intergenerational initiative in Chicago.
Cameras help goal of service
By Roy Whitehead
The Snellville Police Department investigated the use of body-worn cameras more than five years ago when an officer purchased his own. Quickly, we saw the value and utility in such a device. Prior to this, we had purchased in-car camera systems for our cars, but they were cheap, failed and left a significant void. As we replaced vehicles, we added new in-car systems. However, many officers were left without cameras.
Once the body-worn camera option became available, we began to incrementally acquire and issue cameras to officers with no in-car system. Over time and three iterations of cameras, we successfully equipped each officer with a body-worn camera in addition to installing in-car systems in each vehicle.
Both types of cameras have been proven valuable; however, the body-worn cameras have an advantage. While the in-car system remains fixed, the body camera travels with the officer and records what he or she sees.
With the videos, cases have been successfully prosecuted in court with clear, unequivocal evidence. The cameras assist with the investigation of officers when complaints are made regarding their professionalism or legality of their actions. So far, officers have been exonerated in each case. However, when the officer is wrong or makes a mistake, we would have clear evidence that would allow us to take appropriate action.
Each person who interacts with law enforcement has his or her own perception of the encounter. Since it is human nature for people to tell their story in a favorable light, video gives us an accurate depiction of what happened.
Recently, a father reported his daughter had been cited for running a red light and that the officer was rude. In addition, he reported that when his daughter told the officer she did not commit the violation, the officer said, “Well, you have a GPS, so I could charge you with distracted driving.”The video clearly recorded the violation, and the body camera recorded the interaction. The officer told her about the violation and she replied, “I must have been looking at my GPS and didn’t realize I had run the light.” The officer responded by advising that she could also be charged with distracted driving, but only gave her a warning for that infraction.
The father took a copy of the video and used it as an educational opportunity with his daughter. He was satisfied the violation had occurred and the officer had acted properly. The daughter said she didn’t remember the officer being so nice.
The downside to cameras is they could create an unreasonable expectation there will always be a camera. The equipment is not infallible. An officer could forget to turn the camera on. Some in-car camera systems appear to be recording, but later we find out they did not. Also, they have a four-hour battery life; officers work 12-hour shifts. Also, some video recordings could be taken out of context or distorted by the angle of the camera.
Overall, they are another tool that helps us achieve our goal of being open, and willing to communicate and provide the highest level of service to our community.
Roy Whitehead is Snellville police chief.
It’s been a tumultuous and difficult environment for police officers in the U.S. as of late. Fair or not, a handful of incidents have left many in America deeply skeptical of law enforcement procedures and how officers handle potentially contentious situations.
One of the proposed solutions to this issue is to equip police officers with body cameras. To some, this sounds like a slam dunk; but others have reservations. To help understand the dispute, we enlisted some law enforcement experts to weigh in on the pros and cons of police body cameras.
Advantages of police body cameras
A clear picture
While mounted police cameras can’t pick up on absolutely everything an officer sees, the video obtained from these cameras can help paint a much clearer picture of what happened in an incident. Police reports, especially in complex situations, can be hard for juries to interpret or visualize. Video evidence removes a lot of that uncertainty.
“When it comes to times where you can use that video as direct evidence, I think it certainly tells a tall message,” says Bobby Kipper, former police officer and founder of the National Center for the Prevention of Community Violence .
Improved behaviorAs a general rule of thumb, people tend to behave better when they know they’re being watched. But that’s not to say this is just a check on over-zealous or aggressive police behavior. Citizens who know they are being filmed are less likely to act aggressively as well, as the video removes any opportunity for disputing their behavior.
“All it takes is that first complaint from someone to be resolved by this footage to really start getting officers to buy-in,” says Steve Tuttle of TASER International, one of the world’s largest body camera producers. “This becomes their legal ‘body armor.’”
Another benefit from these videos is that it allows officers to self-evaluate and find opportunities to improve how they handle a situation. Tuttle says it’s somewhat similar to seeing yourself interviewed on TV for the first time. You’ll probably cringe a little as you assess your performance, but it can serve as a learning opportunity and motivator.
They’re relatively unobtrusive
Police officers are responsible for a lot of equipment, and while some might bristle at the thought of adding more to the list, the cameras used for law enforcement are not bulky or particularly burdensome. But the smallest cameras are about the size of a tube of lipstick and can be mounted in a variety of locations on an officer’s body. Altogether the camera and battery pack weigh just less than a quarter of a pound.
Reduction in complaints & related expenses
Early results from agencies using body cameras appear to be positive. A study performed by the Rialto, CA police department found that the cameras led to an 87.5 percent decrease in officer complaints as well as a 59 percent reduction in use of force over the course of a year—and they’re not the only departments seeing positive results.
This drop in complaints can also lead to a substantial decrease in the time and resources devoted to investigating complaints and resolving civil litigation. These cameras could also present an opportunity for police departments to highlight the everyday good officers do as well as give the public a better idea of what the day to day life of a police officer is really like.
Cons of police body cameras
It’s no secret a lot of state budgets have been squeezed since the latest economic downturn, and this may make the price tag for implementing body camera systems unrealistic for some law enforcement agencies. The cameras offered by Tuttle’s company range in price from $399-$599 per unit.
Kipper says the expense needs to be taken into account for those who push for immediate adoption of body cameras.
“These cameras can be a costly initiative for communities who haven’t planned for this,” Kipper explains. “A lot of these departments are under a tight budget already.”
“People in the community need to understand that they’re on candid camera, literally, with law enforcement present,” Kipper says. “Are they going to be okay with being filmed when things aren’t going well?”
Police body cameras do raise some substantial privacy issues. The nature of police work has officers interacting with citizens during their most vulnerable moments. For example, would you feel comfortable knowing anyone could request to view video of an incident that occurred within your home? Or footage of you if you’ve been the victim of a crime? Will officers have the discretion to turn off the camera in sensitive or potentially dangerous situations?
Departments will need to work with advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to develop policies that balance citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights with the public’s desire for transparency.
Storage of evidence
Traditionally, evidence is collected, labeled and physically stored under lock and key. But digital video storage adds another layer of complexity that some law enforcement agencies may struggle to manage. While agencies may save time collecting, organizing and tracking digital photographic evidence, video requires an additional investment in either storage hardware or cloud-based storage systems.
Tuttle says the issue is about more than just having a place to house the video.
“It’s important to consider chain of custody—once you have the video can you take it to court? Can you prove where it’s been or whether it’s been altered from the original?” Tuttle asks. These are legitimate concerns that cause some to question the use of police body cameras.
Too much too fast?
“If you’ve been doing your job one way for 10, 15 even 20 years and now someone tells you to do it differently—it’s uncomfortable,” Tuttle says. “Whether you’re a pro or a novice, change is always going to present a challenge.”
The change in how police officers operate will likely provide some initial friction; a problem which Kipper says could be magnified if departments rush in too quickly in the face of public pressure. Policies need to be developed, training needs to take place and funding needs to be secured.
“It’s a big process that doesn’t just happen overnight,” Kipper says.
The final verdict
The American public, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, seems to be in favor of law enforcement adopting body cameras. There are certainly valid concerns regarding how this technology will be implemented, but the strong support shown for these cameras seems to indicate it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll be implemented. Departments will have to overcome the challenges presented here, but these cameras also provide an opportunity for police to strengthen the relationships they have with the communities they serve.
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