Smile, You’re on (Police) Camera!

Unknown-2A mobile video surveillance company has donated body cameras to the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department. The department did not have body cameras at the time of the fatal encounter with Michael Brown. Body cameras have eight hours of recording life and a police radio interface. The number of police departments in the U.S. using body cameras has been increasing, according to the Associated Press. Approximately one in six U.S. police departments use body cameras in some form. [To read the entire story from ABC News, CLICK HERE.]

“Smile, you’re on candid camera!” may be the new mantra for police today. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about these cameras. On one hand, I understand that given the present level of community distrust, this may be a quick way out. (I do believe it was a good “first and immediate step” by Ferguson police.)

Having said that, I know that the cameras cannot replace the need for our nation’s police to increase their level of civility and courtesy in their interactions with citizens. But when will the cameras be turned on? When and in what situations can they be turned off? How long and where are the video data stored? Who can access it?

I just foresee a lot of problems here that could have been overcome by developing and maintaining higher levels of community trust .

Nevertheless, the Police Foundation recently completed a yearlong study to evaluate the effect of body-worn video cameras on police use-of-force in the Rialto, Calif. Police Department. This study  represents the first experimental evaluation of body-worn police video cameras. Cameras were deployed to all patrol officers.

Here’s what they found:

Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers…

  • A 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and
  • Nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.

[The full report, coauthored with Dr. Barak Ariel, Cambridge University, can be found at the following link. And see the New York Times report on the study. Also a report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the COPS Office regarding guidelines for the use of police body cameras.]

Those are pretty dramatic findings in Rialto. I suppose you could say that the quickest way to improve police behavior is to put personal video cameras on all police. But what about detectives and officers in plain clothes? What about command staff? Can it negatively change police-community interactions?

The bigger picture is this: Are we emerging into a new digital era in which everyone will be wearing video cameras (don’t forget Google-glasses)? If so, ow will this change our interactions with one another? Facebook, texting, Tweeting, video and audio recording. Overall, will this improve policing or not? And let us not forget that the advent any new technology always creates unexpected consequences. Think about what they may be.

I am glad we had the Police Foundation study.

Now let the work begin.