“Cop Cams” Provide Solutions to Worsening Police and Public Relations

copcamNews on the killings of minorities by law enforcement has been spreading like wildfire across the nation, raising concerns of racial targeting, excessive force and abuse of power from police. To make things worse, police are hardly held accountable because of lack of solid evidence.  In this past month alone, four different African-American men were killed in separate altercations with police.  One of those cases involved an unarmed 18-year-old boy, Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of police has resulted in an eruption of anger and concern among social media and an outbreak of enraged public protests .  Although protests have involved violence, looting and vandalizing the streets of St. Louis, Missouri (where the crime occurred), rallies and protests lead by peaceful citizens are occurring today, with troubling over-militarized police forces at bay.  Although seemingly bleak, there are high hopes for bettering the relationship between law enforcement and the public, and it comes in the form of a small, portable camera.

In an article on TIME Magazine, Nick Gillespie writes: “While there is no simple fix to race relations in any part of American life, there is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens.”  Where many times facts surrounding a police altercation are based on unreliable “he says” and “she says,” video recorded surveillance would put all discrepancies to rest by providing solid, indisputable evidence.  This would ensure accountability on those at fault.  Also, there is scientific proof that shows that when people know they are being watched, they tend to behave better.  Think about it, would you cheat on an exam if you know your teacher was watching you through a surveillance camera?  Probably not.  It is foreseeable that enforcing cameras on cops would provide the evidence needed to ensure justice is rightfully served, improve police conduct and restore much-needed public trust in law enforcement.

A growing number of citizens are using cell phone cameras to document their interactions with police authorities, and according to Andrea Peterson of the Washington Post, “as the video archive of questionable police tactics from citizen observers grows, it’s clear there’s a certain benefit to keeping a digital eye on the police: Knowing there is a record can help put everyone on their best behavior—or at least make sure there’s evidence of misbehavior when it occurs.”  Furthermore, the recording of the actions of police in altercations with citizens is not a new idea—many police cars have “dash cams” to document interactions during traffic stops.  Although helpful, according to Timothee B. Lee of the Washington Post, “neither technology allows the kind of pervasive recording that could be done by a camera affixed to a police officer’s lapel or sunglasses.”  Fortunately, a yearlong study on the camera-wearing police officers of Rialto, California, provides the proof needed to support these hopeful claims.

The requiring of body cameras on Rialto police officers went into effect in February 2012.   Over the next twelve months a controlled, randomized study on the impact of on-officer video cameras was conducted and the results were astounding.  Complaints filed against the police dropped a staggering 87.5 %, with use of force by officers dropping 59%. These notable numbers give scientific evidence that demonstrates programs requiring cameras on on-duty police officers, could be an effective and efficient model for nationwide police reform. Although potentially holding the solution to ongoing policing issues in the US, “body cams” or “cop cams” face two debatable roadblocks: concerns on the invasion of privacy for the public and the police, and cost.

In an article on the American Civil Liberties Union, Jay Stanley skillfully addresses that, “the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we [the ACLU] think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks.”  In the article, Stanley sheds like on the importance of protecting the privacy of police officers, as well.  Recommendations for the technology and potential protective policies in regards to privacy concerns are demonstrated beautifully, beginning with the need to ensure that both cops and citizens, are equally protected.

Although it is necessary for cop cams to continuously record in order to eliminate the possibility of police manipulating video evidence, “police officers’ privacy, like citizens’, should be protected by appropriate policies.” As advised by Jay Stanley of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), a privacy policy that could be put in place would be one that ensures all recordings of police or the public, in non-confrontational, non-threatening situations, be deleted without ever being reviewed. Other privacy policies could include: officers clearly notifying people that they are being recorded, especially when entering a home; recordings only being used for internal and external investigation of misconduct; public disclosure of recordings only being allowed with consent of the subject with the “burring or blackening out of portions of video and/or distortions of audio” to protect the identity of the subjects; and lastly, preventable measures in the technology of cops cams that ensure there is no possibility of any tampering or deleting of video recorded evidence. Stanley believes that, “although fitting police forces with cameras will generate an enormous amount of video footage and raises many tricky issues, if the recording, retention, access, use and technology policies are properly [created and] followed, very little of that footage will ever be viewed or retained, and at the same time those cameras will provide an important protection against police abuse.”  Ensuring privacy rights for the police and the public alike, is the first step towards a successful national police reform using cop cams.

With the striking results, it should come to no surprise that the body cam results from the Rialto study have become the center of focus in the movement for revolutionizing the nation’s current failing law enforcement system.  Although cop cams have many beneficial appeals, a major concern regarding the arming of police officers with cameras has also risen from the study: cost. Derek Thompson introduces growing cost concerns in a recent article on The Atlantic, by stating, “At $900, the devices employed in Rialto would rack up a prodigious cost for cities like New York, which employs 35,000 police officers.” Thompson then points out, “that’s 31 million in police cameras”—an astounding number compared to the $90,000 spent by the significantly smaller, Rialto Police Department.  The price is most definitely a shock as it covers only one, among hundreds of cities that need to be considered in the reform.  However, in an article on the issues surrounding the push for New York’s big spending on cop cams, Matthew Schonfel quotes New York’s public advocate Letitia James (who proposed a pilot program that would put body-worn cameras on 15% of officers in control): “when you compare $152 million in judgments that we paid out last year compared to $32 million if we were to do this citywide, there would be some savings and obviously it would improve police-community relations.”  The “$152 million” that was mentioned in James’ quote, is referring to the money that taxpayers were forced to dish out for NYPD related lawsuits, in just 2013 alone.  According to Schonfel, that $152 million in lawsuit money was less than what has been paid out in previous years.

With the ability to improve police conduct and provide solid evidence, body cams have the power to decrease and possibly eliminate the need for litigation funds paid by taxpayers.  In other words, by investing in cop cams, New York City and other US cities can actually save money.  Furthermore, since the costs of lawsuits on a city’s police department stems from the complaints of excessive use of force and/or brutality, in cities where litigation costs are low, body cams shouldn’t be necessary for every officer.  For cities like these, body cams may not be necessary at all.  Why introduce unnecessary costly incentives where they aren’t needed?  In order to solve growing policing issues without creating new problems, every city’s individual need for body cams must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.  This way, body cams serve their purpose by providing great benefit to the nation without doing any harmful damage.

Dating way back to the 1920’s, US law enforcement has had a long history of police brutality and abuse of power, making it hard to believe that the nation is still dealing with similar problems today.  On the other hand, what we lacked in our American past can be our solution for our future—that being, the country’s seemingly never-ending advances in technology.  As shown in the Rialto study, body cams have the potential to change the law enforcement world in the US, for the better.  With careful aim towards the protecting of police and public privacy, along with the careful examination of every city’s need to body cams on a case-by-case basis, there is no doubt that body cams can provide the life-altering changes the nation needs to better police and public relations.

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