Owatonna, MN Correspondent– Proponents of transparency in government rightly cheer the widening use of police body cameras to document police interactions with citizens. Anything that encourages open and honest government is a positive development. Unfortunately, it seems that law enforcement officials are uncomfortable with complete honesty. Many resist this new tool for community policing by throwing up roadblocks and restrictions such as withholding controversial video from the public if they feel the video might incite protests or worse by disgruntled citizens.
In the case of a police-involved shooting or other violence caught on camera, officials might hide behind the excuse that the images are too graphic for public consumption. Or they might claim public showing of a body cam video might unfairly influence a criminal trial.
These may be valid reasons to hesitate to show body cam footage. However, restricting access to video footage may be detrimental to public relations by giving the impression that the police only want to use body cam footage when it benefits them.
Body cameras are here to stay because they have been shown to be a highly effective way to document evidence in criminal trials. A method must be found to allow sensitive footage to be publicized without compromising personal privacy or fair trials for defendants.
A voluntary committee of citizens in each community could be tasked to review all police videos, be it dash cams or body cams, and decide if there are any reasons a particular video should not be released to the public. These committees would include a legal defense expert and a legal prosecution expert who would advise the lay citizens on relevant legal matters from both sides of the law to make sure no civil rights would be violated by releasing a video to the public.
The citizen advisory committee should represent all factions of the community, particularly minorities who feel oppressed by police. If no legal reason exists to withhold a video from the public, this committee will be empowered to decide whether to release the video or not. If not, then the committee will be held accountable to the community instead of local law enforcement. This will eliminate any claims of cover-ups by local law enforcement and should result in better police-community relations.
Gastonia, NC Correspondent– A huge part of the current debate over police shootings of allegedly unarmed black men has to do with the use of police body cameras. The technology is solid, and the use of the cameras is endorsed by almost every major law enforcement group in the United States. They can be an invaluable resource for investigators trying to reconstruct the timeline of an incident, divine the motivations of the parties involved and catch details that might have escaped the attention of the officers and civilians involved.
However, the cameras aren’t perfect. As has become abundantly clear with the release of the body camera footage in the Charlotte police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, the officer wearing the camera doesn’t always obligingly look in the direction of the evidence or action that investigators and the public want to see. The cameras can be jumpy, and the images that they capture can be gory and horrific, as when the camera-wearing officer checks Scott’s gunshot wounds.
In an odd twist, the presence of body cameras is in many cases making prosecutors’ jobs harder. Remember the “CSI” effect? When the CBS show was at the peak of its popularity, and even now, juries took their seats expecting every case to be resolved by hard scientific evidence, from DNA to elaborate bullet trajectory analysis. The fact that those things often don’t factor into the eventual solution of a case was tough to swallow for jurors used to seeing Grissom and Co. shine blue lights on things and figure out who the perpetrator was based on insect casings and pet dander.
Now, jurors in many cases are expecting body camera footage to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to witness evidence in many situations. While the camera doesn’t lie, it also doesn’t always (or even very often) tell the entire story. Prosecutors, seen as the allies of the police, bear the brunt of jurors’ scorn when the footage fails.
Perhaps eventually we’ll have drones following every officer around, capturing panoramic views of everything, but for now we’ll have to resign ourselves to adding body camera footage to the list of other investigative tools.
Prescott Valley, AZ Correspondent- Police body cameras can both help and hurt law enforcement efforts. Those that support body cameras do so because they want to reestablish public trust as well as provide necessary evidence to counter citizen complaints; however, questions do arise as to when the cameras should be turned on and off and whether problematic footage should be available for public viewing.
Law enforcement officials and officers realize that body cameras are behavior modifiers. They adjust their actions and words once they know they are being observed. They are aware that with a camera running and filming any unacceptable behaviors will be captured. A clear message is being sent that officers and deputies are being watched, taped and expected to follow rules of conduct.
Being aware of your own behavior with the watchful eye of a camera can affect actions and deter officers from aggressive actions that may have deadly consequences. It can also affect the reactions of suspects and suppress their reactive behaviors.
Though body cameras may subdue misconduct and provide transparency for interactions that occur between police and suspects, the cameras may compel police offices to tolerate nerve-racking situations as well as disrespect from suspects that would likely not occur if a body camera were not used.
Other police interactions that are normally acceptable under varying law enforcement situations would also be recorded, which would open up a whole other category of supposed misconduct and grounds for legal actions.
Body camera use would be effective with training and coaching in how officers should conduct themselves and would be helpful in one-on-one training for improvement in dealing with suspects, witnesses and crime victims.
Cost factors with body cameras must also be taken into consideration. The cameras can be expensive for police and sheriff departments to purchase and maintain, and the storage and protection of film evidence is critical as well. If the volume of footage is large and continues to increase, questions arise as to user licensing, storage space capacities, security measures and system upgrades, which can drive costs to prohibitive levels.
Even with the various costs and maintenance of the cameras themselves, advantages remain with decision making in regard to prosecutions and criminal proceedings in general. Verbal testimonies of police officers have considerable impact in court cases, but digital evidence could become the deciding factor in cases as it would likely carry more weight with the public, prosecutors, juries and judges, as opposed to just verbal testimony. There could be court challenges and questions with officer testimony when body cameras are not in use.
The potential consequences of across the board use of body cameras are hard to predict, but like any other intrusive type of tool, it has the potential of being misused, and the implementation costs and detrimental effects on law enforcement officers are also factors that need to be considered. Time will tell what the repercussions will be as to whether body cameras are more hurtful or harmful to law enforcement efforts.