Are police body cameras more trouble than they’re worth?
Thursday, October 13, 2016
The nation was rocked by another scandal involving the police in July. Several cameras showed an African-American man being fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Each camera angle gave graphic details of the fateful incident — yet none of those angles were from the body cameras of the officers involved.
Yes, the spotlight is on the police, but the problems with body cameras have taken center stage today. What was once hailed as the perfect solution to stop police victimization of minorities and to protect officers at the same time has turned out to be a big disappointment.
At times, like in the Alton Sterling incident in Baton Rouge, the officers claimed their cameras became dislodged during the skirmish. At other times, officers have downright refused to activate them or there have been real technical malfunctions.
While many agree the technology and its associated protocols are still in their infancy, the lack of discipline for officers who don't turn on their body cameras has further aggravated the problem. Then, there is the issue of laws that restrict public access to footage.
Body cameras were introduced to increase officer accountability and transparency, but with officers' reluctance to embrace the technology, they seem to have backfired.
In this age of instant connectivity, is it then any wonder that the citizens have turned to recording and live-streaming all such police encounters themselves? In the absence of real footage from law enforcement, these have become the official recordings for all to follow.
When we think of the millions invested behind the new technology, the lack of usage can be brutal. The U.S. government has spent more than $23 million in the last two years, equipping both local and state police departments with body cameras. Another $20 million has been put up in grants by the Department of Justice just recently.
This raises the inevitable question: Is this a good use of taxpayers' money?
With many officers clearly balking at the constant use of the cameras, several states have passed laws that greatly limit access to body camera footage. Meant to help officers feel less vulnerable and prevent a distorted picture from being publicized, the restriction of their release for public record completely undermines their presence in the first place.
What was once thought to protect the officers is now being considered unfair for law enforcement officials. The current public antipathy is quick to use the footage to vilify the officers, which greatly erodes officer morale instead of bringing about the camaraderie and transparency it was supposed to do.
It is perhaps this school of thought that has led to the lax enforcement for body camera usage and the failure to discipline officers who don't turn them on. Even with the violent few months 2016 has seen, there seems to be hardly any legal ramifications for officers who don't turn their camera on.
Yet there are some practical problems to consider here.
Some officers have rightly pointed out that they are impossible to turn off, even during private moments, like when they use the restroom or during the most mundane encounters. What this means is hours of irrelevant footage that the department has to sift through — for which it has neither the time nor the energy.
However, all is not lost. Some studies, like one published by the University of Cambridge in the U.K., show the use of body cameras has been responsible for lowering citizen complaints as well as police use-of-force incidents. Also, 40 and 50 percent of the officers now use the body cameras, compared to a handful a few years ago.
With new wearable technology being introduced for law enforcement, there needs to be a comprehensive analysis of the technology as well as the costs involved to justify their presence, need and actual usage.
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