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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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“[T]he behavior dynamics that explain these complaints and use of force trends are by no means clear. The decline in complaints and use of force may be tied to improved citizen behavior, improved police officer behavior, or a combination of the two. It may also be due to changes in citizen complaint reporting patterns (rather than a civilizing effect), as there is evidence that citizens are less likely to file frivolous complaints against officers wearing cameras. Available research cannot disentangle these effects; thus, more research is needed.” 

Cost is a major concern, especially for smaller police forces. While high-end models can cost nearly $2,000 a unit, cheap cameras can be purchased for as little as $100. Mid-range units vary in price from $400 to $900. With 461,000 sworn local police officers nationwide, the cost of the cameras alone would be between $184 and $414 million. With no clear federal role in funding local policing nationwide, those departments that cannot afford to compete for federal grants would have to buy them on their own dime.

Echoing demands made in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is looking to tie federal police grants to a body camera mandate, saying: “It seems to me that before we give federal funds to police departments, we ought to mandate that they have body cams.”

Camera supporters would be correct to argue such sums would be a drop in the proverbial federal bucket, but the costs of the cameras don’t end after you buy them. Michael White notes that “available research demonstrates that the resource and logistical issues surrounding adoption of body-worn cameras are considerable and, in many cases, difficult to anticipate.”


Training costs money, as does employing people (or diverting an already existing human resource) to supervise the use, collection, storage, and eventual deleting of files. Such individuals would also have to receive extensive training on how to blur and blackout video, manipulate audio, and compliance with privacy laws and police source safety concerns. Supervisors, at least in some areas, are already required to spend hours going over random footage. East Haven, Connecticut, mandates that “supervisors at least once monthly shall randomly review 5 video recordings or one hour of video footage for each of their assigned personnel.” With over 50 officers, that’s a week’s worth of time — if not more — each month.

The amount of time and money dedicated to maintaining and providing footage is likely to increase. In Eugene Ramirez’s white paper, he concedes: “there is a legitimate concern that local prosecutors will demand that all criminal cases filed have an accompanying video along with the other hard evidence.” Michael White's report states the obvious: “The more frequently that body-worn camera footage is introduced in court, the greater these expenses will be.”

Video might not tell us everything, but look for prosecutors to demand it every time if it exists. For small or mid size departments, the cost of employing people for this purpose could be many multiples of the up front cost of the cameras. 

The videos aren’t likely to be treated just as evidence that sits in police custody. Should citizens be granted the right to obtain copies of files where they’re recorded — a subject of debate — the costs would grow even more. There’s good evidence to suggest that citizens are less likely to file false complaints when video exists, and that saves the government money in settlement of frivolous claims. But not releasing video, as some cities have already discovered, can result in settlements, too.

While privacy is indeed a concern, even the notoriously vigilant ACLU has cautiously boarded the body camera bandwagon. 

Over the years, the surreptitious releases of footage of celebrity arrests that went “viral” has sparked privacy concerns, and body cameras are likely to be no different. Look for hacktivists like Anonymous and others, who shut down the Ferguson, Missouri municipal webpage in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, to steal and leak videos. 

It’s also possible that mayhem-seekers could try to wipe out entire databases of footage, which could pose trouble if police departments increasingly rely on footage, not step-by-step accounts of events, to prosecute alleged crimes.

Even if all police departments are outfitted with body cams in short order, as unlikely as that would be, there are also major privacy concerns.

Twelve states, representing 38 percent of the population are two-party consent states, where both parties have to agree to being recorded. In California, one of the two-party states, Ramirez notes there is case law to support officers recording without others’ consent “if an officer is legally allowed to be where they are…” because “…a person has no expectation of privacy when they are engaged in an interaction with police.” 

It would be nice if officers always were in places they should be, but this is not always the case, and lawyers will be able to exploit grey areas. Ramirez notes that the current precedents for dash cameras bode well for body camera admissibility, but observes “there does not appear to be any case that specifically addresses Federal Constitutional privacy concerns with a camera worn by a police officer.” Varying precedents could jeopardize the effectiveness of body cameras or, even doom their use in many jurisdictions. It’s impossible to know until the court bangs the gavel.

Despite the amazing advances in technology in recent years, body cameras still have physical and practical limitations. While some cameras don’t allow officers to erase recordings, that ability tends to be tied to the cost of the camera. As with smart phones, battery length will diminish over time, and require departments to buy new batteries or outfit cruisers with chargers to ensure a camera works for the duration of a typical shift. 

Cameras won’t be rolling every second of the shift. In part due to battery life and memory limitations, but more so for privacy concerns of the officers. Police unions don’t want their officers being penalized for violating minor protocols — like stopping for doughnuts more than the allotted amount. In a similar vein, officers don’t want video evidence of their bathroom usage or private conversations. (You can imagine a divorce attorney salivating over the prospects.) 

The limitations of body cameras means that they’re only running when officers want them to run, leaving open the possibility that crooked or lazy officers might take advantage of this and not record some of their activities. Many proponents argue that body cameras are a cost-effective replacement to more costly dash-cam systems, which are usually tied to a wireless on-officer microphone and activate whenever a crusier’s lights or siren go on. So far, no system like this appears to work for body cameras. Should it exist, it’s likely to add to the costs.

While some departments might be able to afford both dash and body cameras, others might opt to ditch the dash cameras, thus removing the automatic camera activation and placing it solely in the discretion of the officer.

Michael White's executive summary concludes, in part:

“Independent research on body-worn camera technology is urgently needed. Most of the claims made by advocates and critics of the technology remain untested…” 

However, to some legislators and advocates, the science is settled.

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