Body Worn Cameras for (and against) Police Officers

For the first time this month, I viewed evidence in the form of a video recorded by a police officer’s body worn camera (BWC).  In addition to dashboard cameras mounted in some patrol cars, some officers now wear small video cameras. The recordings can be downloaded directly to a computerized storage and indexing system, preferably without permitting tampering or editing. Reviewing the video confirmed my prior opinion that I am in favor of officers wearing BWCs to record their investigative contacts and arrests.

This technology has been anticipated and gradually adopted over several years. In 2009, San Jose was the first department to use ear mounted cameras.   In 2010, David Harris (of the blog Failed Evidence which has covered BWCs several times), wrote that a new technology had emerged “with the potential to increase police compliance with the law,” and that field tests in Britain had shown “that the devices were a uniquely effective bulwark against false complaints.”

Today Phoenix, Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque are exploring use of BWCs. Locally, police department in Cotati and Sebastopol are using cameras and it is coming soon to Santa Rosa.

My own BWC video review experience illustrates three strengths of the evidence: completeness, accuracy and context.  First, completeness: There was a three page police report describing the arrest about which I also viewed the video. The report would have required perhaps fifty pages to capture the information on the tape.  It’s simply not feasible for written police reports to capture each and every exact phrase spoken by every person contacted. The video grabs all that, passively, without consuming the officers’ time. Second, accuracy: with the video, there is no room for squabbling over who said what.  I immediately recognized an error in the written report: a statement attributed to my client was inaccurate. On the video it was clear that several people were talking at one time and easy to understand the error, and also possible to replay the video to hear the accurate statement.  Third, context/demeanor: paper police reports are notoriously tone-deaf. Every word is translated into “cop speak,” everyone “exits the vehicle.”  The video captures tone and context. The video I viewed recorded many impatient statements of a frustrated cranky officer that put other people’s responses in context.  Having an objective record of this information is invaluable.

As they are being used more widely, the debate about BWCs has heated up, particularly in New York. Those following the stop and frisk litigation there will recall that Judge Scheindlin’s original order (Floyd v. City of New York. Aug. 12, 2013) mandated the use of BWCs in pilot programs in some precincts. Judge Scheindlin wrote that the cameras could provide “a contemporaneous, objective record of stop-and-frisks” that might “either confirm or refute the belief of some minorities that they may have been stopped simply as a result of their race, or based on the clothes they wore, such as baggy pants or a hoodie.” (Ultimately, the second circuit jumped in and pulled the case away from Judge Scheindlin for dubious reasons that have been sharply criticized by some very respectable folks.)

In the era of NSA surveillance of, well, everything, one irony in this debate has been the resistance of some in law enforcement to wearing cameras. (see discussion here and here) Officers resistant to the idea of “policing the police” have opposed the cameras or asked that their use be optional. I’ve been asking around to see what the officers I encounter in court think of BWCs. My very informal poll of officers reveals the following: those I tend to respect as even-handed and even-tempered support the cameras and say “I got nothing to hide.” Others seem offended by anyone scrutinizing their conduct, pause to call the ACLU names, and oppose the cameras. There were several jokes about posting “idiots” on tape on YouTube, so privacy concerns are not unwarranted (the ACLU has proposed guidelines for use here).

Controlled studies support use of the cameras. For example, during a pilot program in Rialto, CA, during which some officers responding to calls from February 2012 to February 2013 wore BWCs, the use of cameras reduced both officer use of violence and complaints against the department. As Mike Riggs wrote in the The Atlantic: “As Rialto officers demonstrated, the presence of cameras actually improves police performance, and that improvement was reflected in a drastic reduction in complaints. It’s easy to imagine how these cameras could help law enforcement agencies find and discipline bad apples in their own ranks, while protecting good officers from career-ruining lawsuits and disciplinary actions.”

The ACLU weighed the privacy concerns and, with some suggestions, supports use of the camera:  “Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers. Historically, there was no documentary evidence of most encounters between police officers and the public, and due to the volatile nature of those encounters, this often resulted in radically divergent accounts of incidents. Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”

While BWCs are new, I’ve been reviewing other types of recordings with clients for years. Interestingly, I cannot recall a single client ever saying that the store or bank had no right to record them committing a robbery or a shoplift. The same is true of clients captured on dash cams resisting: they accept the video evidence, especially if they were snockered and don’t clearly recall the event. The availability of a video creates an objective piece of evidence that is easy to evaluate and generally accepted. Client meetings that include review of recordings are generally very productive. I am a supporter of “cut through the crap” evidence like audio and video recordings (which rarely match the police report summaries). More and more, it’s my clients who are clamoring for body cam or dash cam recordings when they dispute resisting arrest or complain that officers behaved inappropriately.

For all these reasons I would like to see BWCs used widely.


One thought on “Body Worn Cameras for (and against) Police Officers

  1. Pingback: Police body cameras in full effect « BGTV MEDIA ONLINE

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