In the wake of Ferguson’s protests and increased outrage over use of force by the police, President Obama responded on Monday by asking for $263 million to fund 50,000 body cameras for police. It was an essential move, he claimed, that would restore trust in policing. “This is not a problem just of Ferguson, Missouri. This is a national problem,” Obama said at the press conference. “But it’s a solvable problem.”
And there are plenty of numbers to back him up. Jason Kafoury, who writes for Oregon Trial Advocate, has been fighting for body cameras being adopted by Portland police, because the proof is in the statistics where they’ve been enacted, citing in an October blog post:
Police departments around the country have begun adopting policies requiring officers to wear body cameras, and the results have been encouraging. In Rialto, CA, the police department has seen a sharp decline in both complaints against officers, and use of force reports filed by officers. Since February 2012, complaints filed against officers have dropped 88%, while use of force reports have dropped almost 60%. In Portland, federal judge Michael Simon, in his adoption of the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings that call for police reform, wrote in favor of body cameras on Portland Police officers.
The cameras eliminate the “he-said, she-said” that comes with police brutality cases, and it’s the only way that can accurately reflect what happens, continues Kafoury. Because video doesn’t lie.
But there’s been some concern that maybe this solution isn’t as clear cut as it could be. Scott Key, who writes for Georgia Criminal Appellate Law Blog, says that in his experience cameras aren’t the answer everyone’s been hoping for. In fact, they could just be more of the same:
I still encounter situations where law enforcement did not, for one reason or another, record what is reported to be an incriminating interrogation or, in the traffic stop situation, egregious driving behavior. In those situations, the police officer explains that he found himself somehow without the ability to record an event. Or the camera was out for repair. And when the recording equipment was not working so well, law enforcement agents report that my clients really began to incriminate themselves. It strains credulity to believe that there are so many mishaps with recording equipment in criminal investigations. But there it is.
And most of the judges before whom I appear are willing to believe this reported series of unfortunate events with law enforcement and recording technology. So for all of those proponents of body cameras, I offer countless examples from my own practice where the technology was in place but ceased to work somehow at the moment when it was needed the most.
Key isn’t alone either. The St. Petersburg (Florida) police spokesperson Mike Puetz says that police had questions about body cameras that go beyond funding, such as privacy and storage concerns. Seattle officials, although making a push to require body cameras, are currently dealing with how to provide enough manpower to scrub tapes clean of objectionable details (such as license plates, victims or crime scenes) for videos from body or dash cameras that are requested from public records requests, and will likely soon have to figure out a way to deal with the privacy concerns. A KOMO News article mentions:
Under state Supreme Court rulings, interactions with on-duty police are presumed to be public, [Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson] said, and therefore officers are under no obligation to turn off the cameras if people object to being recorded – even if the event is being recorded in someone’s home.
Law enforcement officials said the opinion clears one major hurdle for the use of the cameras, but leaves another major concern unaddressed: where to draw the line between official transparency and personal privacy when it comes to responding to disclosure requests for body cameras under the state Public Records Act.
“I have no doubt there’ll be conversations with the Legislature in the upcoming session,” Ferguson told reporters.
Ferguson issued the nonbinding legal opinion in response to a request from state Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane. Billig had asked the attorney general’s office several questions about whether the use of the body cameras might run afoul of the state’s Privacy Act, which bars the recording of most private conversations without the consent of all parties.
Because the interactions are considered public, the attorney general said police departments don’t need the consent of individual police officers or of the people they record. Nevertheless, the use of such cameras may be governed by collective bargaining agreements with police unions, and local governments may adopt rules for their use that are stricter that what is allowed by state law, he said.
Even in Rialto, Calif. where use of body cameras has lowered complaints significantly, citizens say that always being on camera makes them uneasy. And the problems don’t stop there.
Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to bring charges in the death of Eric Gardner, an unarmed black man who was killed by a white police officer after being placed in a chokehold. The incident, which was caught in its entirety on camera by a bystander, shows that when Gardner resisted arrest, an officer put him in a chokehold and held it despite assistance from two other officers, and already having Gardner restrained. Although the incident was caught on camera, ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, and the chokehold maneuver the officer used had been banned by the New York Police Deparmtnet for many years, the video wasn’t enough evidence to indict the officers behind the incident. The grand jury’s decision came on the same day that New York’s Mayor announced that NYPD would be accelerating its efforts to outfit all patrol officers with body cameras, leaving many wondering if cameras can really be the catch-all Obama and others hope them to be.
Still, as the bloggers at The Crime Report often write, the effectiveness of body cameras as a preventative measure when it comes to law enforcement abuse is overwhelming. Even the ACLU has declared use of them as “a win for all,” with proper usage policies in place. And in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and subsequent protests, Brown’s parents have led the charge for body cameras to become commonplace in precincts across the country–with many departments around the country already instituting policies before Obama’s actions this week. Though they’re likely not the perfect solution, they bring promise to many across the country.