Body Worn Video Steering Group

Public and Police Benefit From Body Cameras

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(Via The Island Packet) Nearly every young reporter covers a car wreck. What they quickly learn is at least two versions of every incident exists — in this case, the driver whose vehicle was hit and the driver who allegedly did the hitting.


This peek into the human psyche explains a great deal about why bystanders gave varying accounts of the interactions between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Some eyewitnesses claimed Brown was on the attack while others said he was surrendering.

Without actual video, we’ll never know for sure. Less than a minute of footage could resolve so many questions.

That’s why it’s encouraging that a majority of law enforcement agencies globally are actively working to avoid similar scenarios by embracing body cameras. In the USA, all departments in Beaufort and Jasper (South Carolina) either have body cameras or are planning to buy them — with one lone exception.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner is bucking the trend, saying no need exists for additional recording tools. His agency already uses in-car cameras, audio recorders worn on deputies’ uniforms and video-recorded interrogation rooms.

“We have very good policies in place to deal with officers who conduct themselves in the wrong way. We’re in good shape,” Tanner said.

He should reconsider. As the Ferguson case proves, without video, it can be difficult to answer the prerequisite question of whether officers have conducted themselves appropriately. In-car cameras are useless when officers and suspects move out of range. Audio recordings provide some proof of what has transpired, but not as much as when paired with video. And unless an incident occurs in an interrogation room, there’s no point in reviewing them.

Body cameras also speak to community confidence. Embracing the technology is to embrace transparency. Conversely, rejecting it makes the public speculate on what’s being hidden.

But body camera usage isn’t just an added layer of comfort for the public. It often works in officers’ favour. In the town of Rialto, California, one of the only places where the impact of the cameras has been studied systematically, complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent during the first year the cameras were used.

“So much of what goes on in the field is ‘he-said-she-said, and the camera offers an objective perspective,” William J. Bratton told The New York Times recently. Bratton previously led the police departments in New York and Los Angeles. “Officers not familiar with the technology may see it as something harmful. But the irony is, officers actually tend to benefit. Very often, the officer’s version of events is the accurate version.”

And another unanticipated benefit being studied now in Rialto — an increase in convictions in court thanks to video footage.

Additionally UCLA researchers will collect footage from between 50 and 100 officers next year to glean insight from video and audio into effective policing. The police agency involved has not been disclosed, but police have started using such cameras in many cities, including Los Angeles.

One goal, says Jeff Brantingham, an anthropologist at UCLA who is leading the work, is to see whether software might help detect when encounters with members of the public escalate but are then calmed by a police officer.

“While we focus attention on things that escalated all the way to extreme outcomes, we know a lot less about other events,” Brantingham says. “Things that went down a dangerous path and ended up being okay. Why did it end up that way? That would provide a huge benefit in terms of training.”

Starting in January, the researchers will try using software to help categorize police work into tasks such as talking with citizens, walking, driving, and going into buildings.

That’s not to say there are no aspects to iron out. Law enforcement agencies must figure out how to store these vast loads of footage. And long-term, who should have access to the footage? For example, should the federal government be able to see it?

These are questions that can and will be figured out as the technology continues to go mainstream. Accepting that body cameras are an inevitable piece of 21st century police work will give Tanner and other law enforcement officials a bigger say in how they’re answered.

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