Police encounters seem to be a growing source of controversy whether over the use of Terry stops or of force. When encounters between police and civilians are questioned, it often turns into a classic “he said, she said” exchange with neither side having much more than their word to support their version of the story. But, this dynamic could be changing soon. Police departments nationwide are changing their stance on officers wearing cameras and sending officers into the field equipped with more than just their weapons.
In 2012, the city of Rialto outfitted its officers with small Body Cams to be worn during their shifts. At the end of each shift, the full-color video is automatically uploaded to a central database. The cameras themselves are about 108 grams and small enough to fit on an officer’s collar or sunglasses. Researchers studied the effects these cameras had on officers during a 12 month period. The results were striking. During the 12 month period, complaints filed against police officers fell by 88 percent and incidents involving “use of force” fell by 59 percent. The study theorized that the presence of cameras caused the police and individuals involved to behave better knowing the interaction was being recorded.
Rialto is not alone. In the weeks following a police encounter in Ferguson, Missouri that left a teenager dead and a city in turmoil, law enforcement in over a dozen cities have begun equipping their police forces with body cameras. Interest groups who are usually pitted against each other are voicing support for the cameras. City attorneys hope the cameras will help in civil suits brought against police officers or departments, as well as, be used to improve officer training. Many rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union among them, feel the police will be more readily held accountable if encounters are recorded. After conducting their own study, the results of which were published in September, the Justice Department concluded that the use of body cameras by police had the potential to “promote [a] perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice” during police encounters. Even police unions who were adamantly opposed to the cameras’ implementation when they first appeared have changed their views. Given the pervasive use of cell phones to record police interactions and post on social media sites, police departments are hoping the cameras’ footage will help change the perception of police, especially in urban areas where distrust of the police often runs deep in communities.
However, the use of body cameras does present some unique challenges. The use of such new technology raises important privacy concerns in the absence of any national guidelines on their use. The myriad and often complex public record laws in most states has not evolved along with the available technology. For example, in Oregon current state law requires some sort of notification before an individual can be filmed. Yet it is unclear what kind of notification would be sufficient in various situations police may encounter, such as a violent situation unfolding rapidly, and the consequences of failing to give proper notice can have serious implications on later attempts to prosecute the crimes. In states with strict public records laws, police are attempting to balance making the footage readily available while simultaneously protecting the identity of victims or other individuals working with the police.
The reality is that cameras are ever present in today’s world whether used by the police or bystanders. The hope is that body cameras used by police can actually change the dynamic of police interactions by changing behaviors and by changing the perception of the police within communities. As more and more police departments begin using body cameras in the field, it is now possible to imagine a much different outcome in controversial police encounters, one that actually brings the police and communities closer together instead of tearing them apart.