What has going on in Ferguson, Missouri has had the country quite riled up about race relations in America. It has become politicized enough where shortly after the release of a White House review on law enforcement practices on Monday, President Obama has recommended appropriating $75M to purchase 50,000 police body-mounted cameras. It should be no surprise that the events in Ferguson would elicit such a response. Personally speaking, I'm more perturbed by the increased police militarization in America that the Ferguson situation exemplified, which is something the White House review addresses. Regardless, it gets me wondering if equipping police officers with body cameras is such a good idea or not.
If one had to summarize the case for police body cameras in a single word, it would be "accountability." Since the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, there has been considerable clamoring for police officers to wear body cameras to capture footage of police officers on the job. Not only are these cameras supposed to hold police officers accountable for their actions in order to reduce complaints of police misconduct, but it is also supposed to protect officers from false accusations of wrongdoing. Humans tend to behave better when they think they are being watched, which is the reasoning behind the body cameras and their efficacy.
While body cameras have the potential to alter behavior for the better, skeptics are worried about it can adversely affect law enforcement, as is illustrated by this Madison Police Department report. Do you think a confidential informant is going to want to talk to a cop with a camera streaming footage? Can a camera be turned off if the citizen requests it? Can this new technology be abused? Should police camera footage become public record? How much would these body cameras infringe upon the Fourth Amendment? Issues of privacy either for citizens or police officers set aside for a moment, there are also technological impediments.
As of date, the battery life on a camera can be as short as a couple of hours, but can be long as twelve hours. The technology can always improve, but it questions the ability of the camera to capture everything. Even if we assume that the camera never malfunctions during the entire tour of duty and the video is never tampered with, the camera is still not going to be a completely accurate telling of events because given the limits by the scope of the lens, it cannot capture everything. A video without context can be misinterpreted.
None of this even touches upon the dollar amount for such equipment. Obama is looking to spend $75M on 50,000 cameras, which comes out to $1,500 per camera. Considering that cameras range from $119-$1,000 per camera, I'm not sure why Obama is asking for this much money. Even so, this amount would only cover a fraction of the nearly 630,000 law enforcement officers. Also, the cost that is even bigger than the initial cost of buying the camera is video data storage. According to a recent Department of Justice study on police body cameras, the bulk of costs for body cameras goes to data storage, as the New Orleans Police Department has already discovered (p. 32). Again, technology can always improve, but considering the budget cuts that have been taking place since the Great Recession, it is going to be more difficult to fund such an initiative, even with federal funding assistance.
As for whether body cameras work, since they are a relatively nascent technology, the empirical evidence is scant (see Office of Justice Programs assessment here). Aside from the Department of Justice study cited above, a case study that has shown promising success is Rilato Police Department case study. In this case study, use of force by officers decreased by nearly two-thirds, and citizen complaints decreased by 88 percent. There are some other case studies out there, not to mention the UK Home Office's report on the topic, but there is still a lack of a causal link because it's not sure whether the citizens, officers, or both behave better as a result of being videotaped. Additionally, implementing the cameras is still new enough where we don't have anything close to a complete cost-benefit analysis. For instance, while the cameras cost money to purchase and maintain, there is the question of how help they prevent the costs of police misconduct. For instance, the NYPD paid out $152M last year as a result of claims of police misconduct, which is a lot more than body cameras would have cost. Do body cameras improve or erode relations between law enforcement officers and the citizenry? Do they have the ability to intimidate victims or even suspects, thereby altering their testimony?
Aside from it being new technology, I have my ethical and legal qualms about such technology. Even so, if the intuition behind the body cameras is correct, I have to agree with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in its 2013 report by saying that it will be an overall improvement over not having cameras. To affirm that assertion, more cities, such as Washington DC and New York City, should experiment to see if body cameras work. That being said, we should not treat this as a catch-all or a silver bullet in law enforcement reform. Body cameras can help with law enforcement, but this policy would have to work in conjunction in other policies if we want to improve upon the overall state of local law enforcement.
10-15-2015 Addendum: The University of South Florida just released a case study showing that body cameras are indeed effective.