The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, policeman — and the subsequent protests and violence — will accelerate the emerging movement by law enforcement agencies to equip officers with “body cams.”
Police in Ferguson began wearing body cameras shortly after Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Last week, after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson on criminal charges, Brown’s family issued a statement: “Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”
Wearable video cameras are already used by a growing number of departments. Their arrival in our region is imminent: The Sarasota Police Department has cameras on order and expects to begin using them in January, a spokeswoman said. The county Sheriff’s Office has also ordered cameras.
Tom Knight, Sarasota County sheriff, told me he wants his deputies to use the cameras — after the costs and potential effects are examined and understood locally and statewide.
When Knight first told me his reservations, I thought he was being overly cautious. But a cursory review of the experiences involving departments that have used cameras led me to this conclusion: Knight is right.
A methodical, fully informed approach is supported by a study conducted in 2013 for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, a branch of the U.S. Justice Department.
A report on the study — “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned” — concluded: “Like other new forms of technology, body-worn cameras have the potential to transform the field of policing. To make sure this change is positive, police agencies must think critically about the issues that cameras raise and must give careful consideration when developing body-worn camera policies and practices.”
Here is one of the key, overall recommendations in the report: “Police agencies should adopt an incremental approach to implementing a body-worn camera program. This means testing the cameras in pilot programs and engaging officers and the community during implementation.”
The good news is that police in communities where body cams have been used cite benefits. Rialto, California, reports: a 60 percent reduction in officer use of force incidents; half the number of use of force incidents for shifts with cameras compared to shifts without cameras; an 88 percent reduction in number of citizen complaints between the year prior to and following deployment.
Ron Miller, police chief in Topeka, Kansas, reported a benefit of body cameras that is hard to quantify but encouraging: “Everyone is on their best behavior when the cameras are running. The officers, the public — everyone.”
The report cited an important advantage: “Police executives said that body-worn cameras have significantly improved how officers capture evidence.”
Among the concerns cited in the report, in news coverage, by organizations and others:
• Privacy. In general and, according to law in some states, citizens have an expectation of privacy — that, in this case, their actions will not be recorded without their permission.
Policies must be in place to balance privacy rights with the needs of law enforcement agencies. Answering questions such as “When, where and under what considerations would cameras be on or off?” is vital.
• Effects. Video evidence can be valuable. But would the fear of being seen on camera discourage people from calling for police services (think victims of domestic abuse) or cooperating with police (such as people who are pointing out drug dealers or other criminals in their neighborhoods)? Such concerns reinforce the importance of determining when and how cameras would be used.
• Access. Broad requests for videos have created legal challenges in Washington and other states.
Florida has one of America’s broadest public-records laws. Under what circumstances would requests for videos be granted? How much would it cost to produce, edit and redact content? Who would pay?
Local governments and the Florida Legislature will have to weigh in. Before they do, prior to the introduction of specific ordinances or laws — the point at which it becomes more difficult for opposing interests to reach consensus — how about someone convene a panel with members who could rationally and productively discuss the implications and desired results of body cams?
A group with representatives from law enforcement, civil-rights organizations, the media and other open-government advocates should be asked to provide a solid framework for laws and policies that benefit from the lessons already learned and the challenges likely to arise. Let’s have a conversation that seeks to maximize the benefits, and minimize the costs and downsides, of body cams — before unintended consequences get in the way.