“Hardcore” Body Camera Policies Could Do More Harm than Good

Over at the Daily News Shaun King is writing a 25-part series on “solutions for police brutality.” The sixteenth article in the series is on police body cameras and includes a number of misconceptions that I want to address. Body cameras are a valuable tool in the quest to increase accountability and transparency in law enforcement, but discussions about body camera policy shouldn’t misrepresent the difficulties associated with policy-making or police officers’ motivations.

King is right to highlight the number of people killed by American police every year and the impact video footage can have in securing convictions against officers who unlawfully use deadly force. Video footage has played a crucial role in investigations into police misconduct. Police officers involved in the deaths of Samuel DuBose, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald are facing murder charges, undoubtedly thanks to video captured by a bystander, a body camera, and a dash camera.

According to The Guardian‘s “The Counted” project 1,146 people were killed in interactions with police in 2015. That’s a rate of about three a day. That rate has held roughly steady into this year, with 693 police-involved deaths in 2016 so far. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and it’s appropriate, given the number of people killed by American police, that criminal justice reform advocates have pushed for police officers to wear body cameras. It’s intuitive to think that if police knew their actions were being recorded they would be more hesitant to use deadly force.

King clearly thinks that police are hesitant to adopt body cameras, despite the fact that they are supported by a clear majority of the public:

it’s my strong belief that police officers and departments are scared to death of this innovation. The proof is all around us. Not only are police departments outrageously slow to adopt the technology, but we continue to see case after case where departments claim to have purchased body cameras, but officers are not wearing them when they use lethal force.

I think King is being unfair to police officers and is not considering the many crucial issues that have to be finalized before an effective body camera policy can be implemented.

It’s of course difficult to generalize when it comes to police officers. There are roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about three quarters of a million people work as sworn state and local law enforcement officers. Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to establish what every police officer in the United States thinks about body cameras.

It’s crucial that body camera policies are carefully thought-out. Without the right policies in place body cameras cannot be tools for increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement.

But that doesn’t mean that researchers haven’t tried to give us some insight into police attitudes towards body cameras. Late last year the American Journal of Criminal Justice published research showing that half of the law enforcement command staff at the local, state, and federal level in a southern county of approximately 1.3 million people support body cameras. The research also showed that half of the same command staff was neutral when asked if body cameras would improve officer interactions with citizens. However, a third of police leadership agreed or strongly agreed that body cameras would improve such interactions.

A 2012 PoliceOne/TASER nationwide survey of 785 local, state, and federal law enforcement professionals found that an “overwhelming majority of police officers believe that there’s a need for body-worn cameras.” The same survey found that 86.4 percent of respondents believe body cameras can reduce false accusations and litigation.

Of course, these surveys aren’t perfect and don’t provide us a full picture of police attitudes towards body cameras. But it’s safe to say that police officers are not universally “scared to death” of body cameras. Yet, according to King, even departments that do express an interest in body cameras can be “outrageously slow to adopt the technology.”

I, like King, have noted delays in body camera deployment, but we shouldn’t forget that data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 32 percent of local police departments used body cameras in 2013 (the last year such data is available). According to Arizona State University criminologist Michael White, every police department with more than fifty officers will be equipping officers with body cameras by 2017 or 2018. But there will still be plenty of work to be done: only around 12 percent of local law enforcement agencies have at least fifty officers.

There are a range of reasons why body camera implementation can be delayed that aren’t related to police officers’ perceived desire to resist increased transparency. Body cameras are expensive and impose a fiscal burden on local governments and states that cannot be ignored. Criminal justice reform advocates understandably want footage of use-of-force incidents available to the public. Storing and curating all of this data costs money. In May, Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that body cameras would cost $11.6 million over five years. Body cameras for Los Angeles Police Department officers are set to cost $57.6-million over a five-year period.

Police departments are not always the institutions responsible for delaying body camera deployment. The Los Angeles City Council stalled body camera plans, citing the price tag and concerns over how the LAPD selected its body camera manufacturer. Last year, the full body camera deployment in Wichita, Kansas was delayed thanks to a lack of federal funds. Data storage concerns delayed the Colorado Springs Police Department body camera roll-out earlier this month.

Perhaps most importantly, body camera programs can be delayed for policy reasons. It’s crucial that body camera policies are carefully thought-out. Without the right policies in place body cameras cannot be tools for increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement.

In his article King discusses “hardcore” policies, writing, “As long as police openly feel like they can turn their cameras off and on at will, the cameras are basically an expensive piece of junk and a mockery of the hard work good people have put in to reform a very serious American problem.” He goes on, “Perhaps the cameras should not even be controllable by officers, but roll constantly.”

These comments raise questions King doesn’t answer. Police regularly talk to the victims of crime and enter private residences. Is it reasonable for police officers to expect the victims of domestic assault to talk to them with a camera rolling? Should cameras be rolling when officers are talking to informants or children who have been sexually abused? What if a citizen calls the police to help her deal with a mentally ill family member and then asks the responding officer to turn his body camera off? After all, footage of living rooms and bedrooms can reveal private information. What’s the best policy for this situation? Should the officer disregard the citizen’s privacy concerns and film the interior of her home anyway?

Policies can address these issues, and I outlined my own thoughts on the best practices for body camera policy in a paper published last year. King should acknowledge that body camera policy is difficult and must be carefully thought through in order to avoid devastating privacy violations. “Hardcore” policies that keep body cameras rolling constantly could have harmful unintended consequences that would outweigh the benefits of body cameras.

It is undeniably frustrating when police officers fail to turn their cameras on during deadly use-of-force incidents, and officers that fail to have body cameras on when they kill someone should face harsh consequences. Yet this frustration shouldn’t lead us to doubt the motives of an entire profession or to propose policies that do not take into account the potential privacy violations made possible by body cameras.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.