Police Body Cameras: Policing the Police or an Unnecessary Invasion of Privacy?

Much has changed in the last several decades from George Orwell’s notion of “Big Brother” in the 1940’s, and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Bloc and the end of cold war in the 1980’s and 1990’s as compared to the post Y2K days of Wi-Fi, YouTube, and Snapchat.  Did I forget to mention that man walked on the moon, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones are still performing, and most people stopped reading newspapers somewhere in between?  Fast forward to March 2015, and there is another police shooting of an unarmed black man in America. Your reaction may vary from “What else is new?” to “This has to end.”  Do you think police body cameras will bring transparency to police encounters with a heavily armed “I-Phone” savvy public? Your answer to this question may be based on your age, ethnicity, zip code, and of course, how many episodes of CSI you have saved on your DVR.

Recently, William A. Farrar, police chief in Rialto, had his patrol officers utilize these new, wearable video cameras, and there have been significant, positive effects. The study lasted from February of 2012 to July of 2013, and in that time, there has been an 88% decrease in the number of complaints filed against officers. In addition, Rialto officers used police force nearly 60% less often, and in cases where force was used, it was twice as likely to have been used by officers who were not wearing cameras during that shift. Based on these statistics, Chief Farrar would like to equip all uninformed officers in his department with video cameras. He says, that “Video is very transparent,” and “It’s the whole enchilada.” However, there were some obstacles Farrar faced in his study. Civilians could easily notice the body cameras, and some would question their privacy. In fact, the question of “big brother” seeing everything they do was also raised by some officers when Farrar introduced the police body cameras. In response to this, Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that police body cameras are not the government seeing everything that we do. Instead, they are the “citizenry watching the government, we like that.” Overall, Stanley said that police cameras would benefit both parties by protecting the public from police misconduct and protecting officers from false accusations.

Police body cameras definitely have certain benefits, but they also come with many complex drawbacks, the main ones being cost, privacy, and security. Many have promoted police body cameras as a way of “policing the police”. However, Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre said, “These cameras, though, allow officers to turn them on and off at will, which defeats the purpose.” In other words, you only see what the cop wants you to see. At the same time, recording everything would result in using a lot of computer storage space and would be extremely expensive. While Jay Stanley has defended concerns about police body cameras regarding privacy, Webre still thinks that they are inefficient in building trust in the community. In addition, all video footage would be on public record unless it is an exception under the public records law. This could cause significant problems when police are trying to gather information from people involved in crimes, and it raises major privacy concerns for crime victims.  Other concerns regarding privacy have been that people would have to worry about video footage of them appearing on a news network or the police storing the videos and misusing them years later. Additionally, the main purpose of police body cameras is to resolve disputes over police misconduct. However, even with video footage, people can still argue for an excessive use of force. Besides, a very important part of police work is investigating behind the scenes, which would not be seen on video footage from police cameras. With this information, Webre concluded that, “Every citizen, every department’s going to be different as to where they draw the line.”

Officer Scott Haigh said that the Rockaway Boro Police Department is currently in the process of obtaining police body cameras.  He believes  police cameras are “definitely a positive thing” as in most cases, they are able to help both police officers and civilians by revealing exactly what happened at the crime scene. He went on to explain the specific details of how the cameras would be used. The cameras would have to be turned on any time an officer steps out of his vehicle and in any other problematic situation.  One important feature of these cameras is that they record 30 seconds prior to being turned on, which allows the events leading up to the situation to be seen too. The only minor issue with obtaining police body cameras, according to Officer Haigh, is that some police officers feel that they have not received enough training on how to properly use them while conducting an investigation. Chief Doug Scheer of the Rockaway Boro Police said police body cameras would be “more advantageous” than just cameras in the car because they would allow the police force to have more situations professionally covered.

Let’s face it, we are an extremely materialistic society. We want multiple angles of every sports replay, froth at the mouth for our buddy’s latest Vine upload, and love every type of reality show. Police body cameras will just give us additional video coverage of what we would most likely see broadcast from someone else’s smart phone anyway. However, do we want that information to be in the hands of the police and on public record? Police body cameras come with many pros and cons. It is up to you to decide what side you are on, and being well-informed on the topic helps.