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Police Body Cameras: Coming Everywhere in 3 to 5 Years

The public largely sees body cams as a tool for police transparency and accountability, not a Big Brother nightmare. Still, there are many issues to consider as more departments adopt them.

Video released by the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office shows University of Cincinnati police officer Ryan Tensing, who shot and killed Sam DuBose, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop. (Reuters)

University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing went to jail on Wednesday after he was indicted on murder charges for shooting Sam DuBose during a traffic stop. After releasing body-worn-camera footage of the shooting, Joe Deters, the Hamilton County prosecutor who brought the charges against Tensing, told reporters, “He purposefully killed him.”

The alleged murder of Sam DuBose may mark the turning point in the public debate about requiring police to wear body cameras. If DuBose’s death turns public opinion in favor of police body cams, then the public will have caught up with the police departments themselves.

“Every law-enforcement agency of 50 or more officers will have body-worn cameras within five years,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Michael D. White, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, shaves it even closer: “Within two to three years.”

And while David Klinger, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, expressed some caution about what we’ll do with the footage, he was firm on body cams. “We need to bring them online as quickly as prudently feasible,” he says.

Experts in criminal justice say that police are hardly recalcitrant about wearing body cams. Far from it: Law-enforcement agencies have been exploring the possibilities of this technology since as far back as 2005. It’s a dark irony that police shootings have made the strongest case for them.

With the press and the public paying more attention to fatal police shootings over the past year—thanks to the sweeping #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations—there’s more urgency among state and local legislators to strap cams on cops. Lawmakers are catching up with law enforcement, too.  

States with legislation pending on body-worn cameras for police officers, as of February 2015. (National Conference of State Legislatures)

A majority of states are now mulling legislation on body-worn cameras: Government Technology reports that 36 states in total are weighing more than 100 bills. Law-enforcement agencies themselves are already moving ahead, however. By 2013, almost one-third of all local police departments—32 percent, or 3,900 departments—were equipping at least some patrol officers with body-worn cameras, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

And in 2013, most local police departments (78 percent) were using some kind of personal surveillance technology—including dash-mounted, body-worn, and weapon-attached cameras. That means most law enforcement officers (78 percent) were at least potentially equipped with a camera.

“Police have always been enthusiastic early adopters of technology,” La Vigne says. “We saw that with public surveillance cameras, which are now commonplace in most jurisdictions of any size.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has already begun compiling research, policy, and technology FAQs in its Body-Worn Camera Toolkit. White, one of the experts consulted by the BJA, says that it’s a resource for everyone from “a concerned citizen to a Civil Rights activist to a chief of police”—but it falls short of a guide on best practices or recommendations.

It makes sense that law-enforcement agencies, state legislatures, and local city councils are racing to put cameras on officers: Almost everyone thinks they’re a good idea. Polls by YouGov and The Economist register persistent, bipartisan, near-unanimous support for body-worn cameras. “The train has left the station,” White says.

La Vigne notes that the public has received body-worn cameras much more warmly than they greeted public surveillance cameras. A considerable segment of the population opposed them, she says. But today, perhaps inured to the ubiquity of video technology and social media, people see police cameras as a tool for transparency and accountability, not a nightmare out of 1984.

And yet, despite their widespread adoption and near-universal appeal, body-worn cameras still pose troubling questions. For starters: Why did Ray Tensing shoot Sam DuBose if he knew his actions were being recorded?

No one will ever know what was truly in that officer’s heart. More reliable answers are to be found in data—but to date, studies on body-worn cameras are simply lacking. Over the next year, researchers will have more to say about trials underway now. La Vigne says that one jurisdiction piloted using helmet-mounted cameras for bicycle patrols. Even after the department stopped using the cameras, officers continued to try to use them, forgetting they weren’t there.

Even given dramatic video such as the Cincinnati shooting, video should never be afforded the status of absolute, determinative truth. Klinger mentions instant replay: In a very practiced recording, one angle might show a play as safe, where another angle shows a play as out. “Cameras also only show one side of the story,” La Vigne says. “You don't see gestures. You don't see facial expressions.”

All three researchers warned me about similar problems with implementing body-warn cameras—or rather, with their footage. Two kinds of laws guide police-camera footage: wiretap (or “eavesdropping”) laws and dissemination (or “sunshine”) laws, including the Freedom of Information Act. Of course, none of these laws was written with body-worn cameras in mind.

States that have passed body-warn camera bills. (National Conference of State Legislatures)

Officers have incredible discretion over when they turn cameras off or on, La Vigne says. But eavesdropping laws designed to protect the public interest may represent a real burden for police. Officers might face severe repercussions for failing to turn on a body-worn camera in the heat of the moment. (It is fortunate, in a ghastly sense, that Tensing did not think to turn his off.)

Some statutes may be interpreted as requiring “dual consent” for body-worn cameras—meaning that an officer must verbally announce his intention to record a subject and receive verbal consent to do so. An officer could be reprimanded for forgetting to turn a body cam off before entering a residence.

Or worse, Klinger says, a police department might be required to post this footage. It will fall on police departments to edit video to protect the privacy rights of suspects who are not charged with any crime or bystanders who are simply caught on film. In states that have broad public-records request legislation on the books, police-cam footage requests may represent an enormous burden on local police departments.

One such state is Washington: The Seattle Police Department put up a YouTube channel devoted to posting body-worn camera footage for anyone who requests it. (“You guys heading home? Get home safe,” one officer says—seemingly hundreds of times—to people leaving some kind of event during May Day protests, in the incredibly snoozy footage below.)

Unredacted video from a Seattle Police Department officer’s body-worn camera, posted on July 9 per a formal request.

As it stands, some law-enforcement agencies are interpreting body-worn camera footage as something other than a public record. Sara Libby has written about how San Diego Police Department routinely denies press requests for footage. In Baltimore, meanwhile, officials say that it will take four years to implement body-worn cameras. Critics say that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is dragging her heels on it, but it could well be the approach favored by the police union.

Four years is too long, but thinking things through is the right idea. Klinger—who worked as a patrol officer in the Los Angeles Police Department and Redmond Police Department—says that sunshine laws and Freedom of Information Act policies have not prepared cities for body-worn cameras. The law in Washington state requires police cameras to be switched on at all times and for officer to be prepared to prove it at any moment. “How in the world are we going to monitor this stuff?,” he asks.

That’s why he says police need body-worn cameras as quickly as prudently feasible—in a timeframe that considers the rights of the public and police alike. It might take months or years, but we as a society should take the time to answer questions now that are bound to arise. When a video captures two cops complaining about their boss, does the public have a right to witness that?

“I have an absolute right when I'm not in the public sphere to call you a dick,” he says. Just one of the rights lawmakers must safeguard right now.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.