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A Rush to Judgment on Body Cams

Body cameras seem great, but why no debate?

4:45 PM, Sep 3, 2014 • By JIM SWIFT
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“There is little debate that all patrol officers should be issued BWCs,” wrote attorney Eugene Ramirez in a white paper his law firm issued on so-called body worn cameras (BWCs). Ramirez is correct that there is little debate. In the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the bandwagon for a body camera mandate has never been bigger.

The chattering classes and political elite agree: we need a “Mike Brown law.” And like any proposed law named after a dead youngster, it’s an urgent call to mandate something now. But there should be a debate, because costs, benefits, and unintended consequences matter.

Screengrab

Screenshot, OJPDC Report

This is not to say that there is no debate. Police unions have pushed back against such mandates, though they are among the only ones. The thing is, they have a point. 

Not all body cameras are created equal. Some record for four hours, others twelve. Some have multiple components and wires, some do not. Unions are concerned about wired cameras shocking officers and the additional weight cameras carry for already-heavily equipped officers. More likely, however, is the risk of head injury for officers who would wear them on ridiculous looking head bands, should they be assaulted or involved in a situation where the camera is struck against their temple. 

In a report he prepared for the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs Diagnostics Center (OJPDC), Michael White notes: “there has been no research examining health and safety issues associated with body-worn cameras.” It appears our government has done more research on the health and safety issues surrounding bean bag chairs and desk magnets than it has on what can be a valuable policing tool.

Supporters of body camera mandates point to studies funded and performed by the body camera manufacturers to justify a quick rush to adoption. The most commonly cited is a study, done by the TASER corporation on its products’ use in Rialto, California. The study says it was a “comprehensive, randomized experiment” but the rest of the first sentence reads more like a product advertisement, as it “proves that TASER’s AXON cameras reduced citizen complaints by 87.5% and reduced use of force by 59%.” TASER’s Axon Pro system costs $1,700 a unit, according to a report by the Spokane, Washington, police ombudsman.

White's report for the OJPDC urges caution before jumping to the conclusion that more body cameras are the sole reason: 

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