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.