Theoretically, a body camera can tell us what really happened. Condemn or exonerate an officer based on unbiased, visual data.
But there are several glitches, the first being that officers don't necessarily turn them on. The North Tonawanda police department in New York requires that officers wear body cameras, but police union contracts require that recording with them be optional [source: Vaughters]. During a six-month body-camera trial in Denver, officers captured only 25 percent of their use-of-force interactions [source: Major].
Another problem is that video footage isn't really unbiased. A body-camera recording doesn't show the scene; it shows the officer's view of the scene. And even then it may not show everything. A collar-mounted camera doesn't follow an officer's eyes as they move. Few of the models have wide-angle lenses that match the human visual field [sources: Wolchover, NLECTC].
Finally, video evidence is ultimately open to interpretation. Studies have shown that factors like gender, cultural background and even where one focuses one's eyes can affect how someone interprets video footage [sources: Kahan, Benares, Harvard Law Review]. In 2014, members of a New York grand jury saw cell-phone footage of an officer holding an unarmed, prone man in a chokehold, the man repeatedly gasping "I can't breathe," until he died. They ultimately decided not to indict the officer for a crime. Others very clearly saw a criminal act [sources: New York Times, ABC News].
A long history of similarly disparate interpretations brings us to this: The link between video evidence and police accountability is questionable.
But maybe that's not the point. The Rialto study and a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that when people are on camera, they behave better. And it's not just the police. When civilians realize they're being recorded, they adjust their behavior, too [sources: Wells, Weiner]. And if it's true that with body cameras running, police are less likely to use force, and civilians are less likely to find fault in police behavior, maybe the best possible outcome of surveilling all police work is not for police to be held more accountable for unjust violence but for there to be less unjust violence to account for. Which actually might be doable.
Author's Note: How Police Body Cameras Work
Driving in the car with my husband, talking about my latest research topic, I mentioned that some see potential nefarious uses for the footage collected by police body cameras. Maybe facial recognition software turns it into a people-tracking tool. Maybe the police themselves are sent out to spy on people. "Maybe," he says, "the police use it in training. Like reviewing footage after the game." As in, "What did this officer miss when he pulled his gun? What should he have seen that would have told him there was actually no threat?" Or, "Watch carefully. These two executed a street stop perfectly." I came across this idea not at all in my many hours of research, and while it's possible the ACLU might see this differently, I think it's a potentially brilliant use of the technology. (My husband, ladies and gentlemen.)
More Great Links
- ACLU: With Right Policies in Place, A Win for All - March 2015
- NYT: What Happening in Ferguson? Aug. 13, 2014 – Aug. 13, 2014
- Obama team will fund police body camera project – May 1, 2015
- Self-awareness to being watched and socially-desirable behavior: A field experiment on the effect of body-worn cameras on police use-of-force
- ABC News. "Public Reaction to No Indictment in Eric Garner Choke Hold Death." (June 8, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/US/photos/public-reaction-indictment-eric-garner-chokehold-death-27345020/image-27360212
- Bakst, Brian and Ryan J. Foley. "For Police Body Cameras, Big Costs Loom in Storage." Associated Press. Feb. 6, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://www.policeone.com/police-products/body-cameras/articles/8243271-For-police-body-cameras-big-costs-loom-in-storage/
- BBC News. "Metropolitan Police officers start wearing body cameras." May 8, 2014. (June 5, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-27313500
- Benares, Isabel. "Video evidence not immune from bias." Yale Daily News. Sept. 30, 2014. (June 7, 2015) http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2014/09/30/video-evidence-not-immune-from-bias/
- Brown, Justine. "Oakland Police Test Cloud Storage for Body Camera Video." Government Technology. Feb. 26, 2015. (June 8, 2015) http://www.govtech.com/data/Oakland-Police-Test-Cloud-Storage-for-Body-Camera-Video.html
- Buchanan, Larry, Ford Fessenden, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Haeyoun Park, Alicia Parlapiano, Archie Tse, Tim Wallace, Derek Watkins and Karen Yourish. "What Happened in Ferguson?" The New York Times. Aug. 13, 2014. (June 6, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/08/13/us/ferguson-missouri-town-under-siege-after-police-shooting.html?_r=1
- Demetrius, Dina and Michael Okwu. "Meet the first U.S. police department to deploy body cameras." Al Jazeera America. Dec. 17, 2014. (June 8, 2015) http://www.govtech.com/data/Oakland-Police-Test-Cloud-Storage-for-Body-Camera-Video.html
- Dotinga, Randy. "Everything You Need to Know About SDPD's Body Cameras But Were Too Afraid to Ask." Voice of San Diego. Dec. 10, 2014. (June 8, 2015) http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/all-narratives/police-misconduct/everything-you-need-to-know-about-sdpds-body-cameras-but-were-too-afraid-to-ask/
- Elinson, Zusha and Dan Frosch. "Police Cameras Bring Problems of Their Own." The Wall Street Journal. April 9, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://www.wsj.com/articles/police-cameras-bring-problems-of-their-own-1428612804
- Emergency Management Law. "Oakland Tests Cloud Storage Solution for Police Body Cameras." March 2015. (June 8, 2015) http://emergencymanagementlaw.com/2015/03/oakland-tests-cloud-storage-solution-for-body-camera-videos/
- Farrar, Tony and Barak Ariel. "Self-awareness to being watched and socially-desirable behavior: A field experiment on the effect of body-worn cameras on police use-of-force." Police Foundation. March 2013. (June 5, 2015) http://www.policefoundation.org/content/body-worn-camera
- Feige, David. "Brutal Reality." Slate. April 10, 2015. (May 25, 2015) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2015/04/police_body_cameras_cops_commit_less_violence_and_complaints_are_real.html
- Ferrell, Craig E. "The Future Is Here: How Police Officers' Videos Protect Officers and Departments." Police Chief Magazine. October 2013. (June 8, 2015) http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=3139&issue_id=102013
- Flores, Reena. "Justice Department to Give $20 Million for Police Body Cameras." CBS News. May 1, 2015. (June 8, 2015) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/justice-department-to-give-20-million-for-police-body-cameras/
- Harvard Law Review. "Considering Police Body Cameras." April 10, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/considering-police-body-cameras/
- Kahan, Dan M. "Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe? Scott v. Harris and the Perils of Cognitive Illiberalism." Faculty Scholarship Series. Yale Law School. Jan. 1, 2009. (June 6, 2015) http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1096&context=fss_papers
- Kaste, Martin. "Police Departments Issuing Body Cameras Discover Drawback." NPR. Jan. 22, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/01/22/379095338/how-police-body-camera-videos-are-perceived-can-be-complicated
- Mac, Ryan. "GoPro Evolution: From 35mm Film To America's Fastest-Growing Camera Company." Forbes. March 4, 2013. (June 8, 2015) http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanmac/2013/03/04/gopro-evolution-from-35mm-film-to-americas-fastest-growing-camera-company/
- Major, Derek. "The push for police body cameras comes with plenty of tech challenges." GCN. April 24, 2015. (May 25, 2015) http://gcn.com/articles/2015/04/24/police-cameras.aspx
- Meyer, Robinson. "The Big Money in Police Body Cameras." The Atlantic. April 30, 2013. (June 8, 2015) http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-big-money-in-police-body-cameras/392009/
- Mims, Christopher. "What Happens When Police Officers Wear Body Cameras." The Wall Street Journal. Aug. 18, 2014. (June 8, 2015) http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-happens-when-police-officers-wear-body-cameras-1408320244
- National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC). "Body-worn Cameras for Criminal Justice: Market Survey. Version 1.0." March 2014. (June 8, 2015) https://www.justnet.org/pdf/Body-Worn-Camera-Market-Survey-508.pdf
- The New York Times – Opinion Pages. "No Indictment in the Eric Garner Case." Dec. 4, 2014. (June 8, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/opinion/no-indictment-in-the-eric-garner-case.html
- Police Foundation. "New Publication Available: The Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force." (June 8, 2015) http://www.policefoundation.org/content/body-worn-cameras-police-use-force
- Police Magazine. "LAPD to Outfit All Officers with TASER Axon Body Cameras and Evidence.com." Dec. 17, 2014. (June 8, 2015) http://www.policemag.com/channel/technology/news/2014/12/17/lapd-to-outfit-all-officers-with-taser-axon-body-cameras-and-evidence-com.aspx
- Stanley, Jay. "Police Body-mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, A Win for All." American Civil Liberties Union. March 2015. (June 8, 2015) https://www.aclu.org/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all
- Stolze, Frank. "$7M annual cost for LAPD body cameras." Southern California Public Radio. March 30, 2015. (June 6, 2015) http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/03/30/50678/7m-annual-cost-for-lapd-body-cameras/
- Vaughters, Al. "South Carolina Police shooting rekindles debate over police body cameras." WIVB. April 8, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://wivb.com/2015/04/08/south-carolina-police-shooting-rekindles-debate-over-police-body-cams/
- Vievu. (June 6, 2015). http://www.vievu.com/vievu-products/hardware/
- Wagstaff, Keith. "Digital Partner: Here's How Police Body Cameras Work." NBC News. Dec. 2, 2014. (May 25, 2015) http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/innovation/digital-partner-heres-how-police-body-cameras-work-n259211
- Weiner, Rachel. "Police Body Cameras Spur Privacy Debate." The Washington Post. Nov. 10, 2013. (May 25, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/police-body-cameras-spur-privacy-debate/2013/11/10/7e9ee504-2549-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_story.html
- Wells, Jane. "The big business of police body cameras." CNBC. Dec. 17, 2014. (May 25, 2015) http://www.cnbc.com/id/102277770
- Wolchover, Natalie. "What if Humans Had Eagle Vision?" Live Science. Feb. 24, 2012. (June 8, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/18658-humans-eagle-vision.html
- Wolfcom. "The New Wolfcom Vision Police Body Worn Camera." (June 8, 2015) http://www.wolfcomusa.com/wolfcom_vision_police_body_worn.html
- Wolfcom. "The Wolfcom 3rd Eye Police Body Camera." (June 8, 2015) http://www.wolfcomusa.com/wolfcom_3rd_eye_police_body_camera.html