The Ethical Debate on Police Body-Worn Cameras
In the recent decade, police officers, nationwide, are having to operate under constant public scrutiny. This is due to expansion of social media and the increased occurrences of excessive and lethal force (Gimble, 2016). The public outcry and growing intensity has called for greater accountability of police officers and the support of the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs). BWCs are one of the nation’s latest and greatest policing tools being used in an effort to increase police department transparency, strengthen community relationships, and combat crime (Bakardjiev, 2015). The first generation of body cameras were created in 2005, originated in the United Kingdom. Since then, more than twenty-three million dollars have been given to police departments around the United States to put toward adopting body cameras (Gimbel, 2016). As the use of BWCs continue to grow in popularity, there has been scrutiny as to whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. This topic creates the question: How has the deployment of police body-worn cameras affected the relationship between law enforcement and the public? This paper will analyze whether or not the use of body-worn cameras create a better relationship with the public.
Police brutality has been around for decades. In history, African American activists often found themselves on the wrong side of the law. They were beaten, arrested and fined just for wanting equality. Even today, although segregation has been put to an end, people are still unjustly beaten and even killed by law enforcement officials, especially those of an African American race. In 2018 alone, 852 people have been killed by police officers. In 2017, 1,147 people were killed and of those, 25% consisted of African Americans despite making up only 13% of the population (Police Violence Map, 2018). In 2014, fewer than 1 in 3 black people who were killed by police officers were actually suspected of a violent crime or were allegedly armed (Police Violent Map, 2018). This accounts for 69% of African Americans killed by police officers that were not part of a violent crime, nor were they armed. These statistics show that racism still persists, and violence against innocent people is still very prevalent.
The unfortunate situation where police officers abuse the power of their uniforms has lead to controversial issues. Examples of such situations include overaggressive handling of traffic stop situations and deaths of innocent and unarmed citizens. Due to the increase of social media use, media has drawn attention to cases of police brutality more than ever. Both television stations and social media sites publicize events that occur between police officers and citizens and more often than not the citizen is a young black man. This publication creates riot outbreaks and protesters who crowd the streets and vandalize the cities all because of the death of another black man due to inappropriate conduct by law enforcement. Every case that involves an African American getting injured or killed by an officer makes news headlines as an instance of racial police brutality, whether it’s true or not. All of these activities contribute to making the case spread from state to national news almost immediately.
Social media has contributed to deteriorating the relationship between African American communities and police officers. The issue with social media is that it is generally filled with opinions from citizens that may not know the full story which results in bias. Most times social media does not show the cases where the young black or white individual was armed, or the cases where the officer gets injured or killed by an armed individual. What social media also lacks is the understanding of the officers actions. While there absolutely are cases of police misconduct, many times the officer’s decision is based on the situation and what he feels is appropriate. In cases where it comes down to the officer’s life or the perpetrator’s life, the officer is going to do what he or she has been trained to do in order to save the lives all innocent people including their own. Potentially, this training can include the use of lethal force. Social media feeds off of “Black Lives Matter” followers, and posts news that will get the most reaction out of the viewers. These reasons are why social media is so bias in their views of police officers in their line of duty. These reasons are why something needs to be done to show the public that it is not always African Americans who become victim of police brutality. Many other races and genders lose their lives to officers, and many officers lose their lives to armed and dangerous people. It is because of these reasons that police body-worn cameras were created.
Body-worn cameras have shown immediate benefits to society in general. Not only can every interaction be documented as it is happening, but those who refer to the video can see and hear exactly what occurred in the situation. Another benefit of the BWCs is its use during investigations for other activities that occurred that were not identified at the time of the occurrence. Because of this, these cameras are beneficial in providing evidence for cases and can be viewed and reviewed as necessary. They provide a sense of objectivity to the scene, where a cop can think or say one thing about the situation, but the camera can show exactly what happened without an opinion. The cameras can show what the officer was responding to which can help in determining whether or not the officer acted justly in the situation. In Choate, Katz and Marrow’s (2016) study, camera deployment was tested to see if the number of arrests and convictions would be positively affected. The study compared non-camera use court cases versus camera use cases, and the camera use cases were more likely to result in an arrest, filed charges, and guilty verdicts. This being said, the article provides evidence that body cameras have been proven to assist officers in higher rates of arrests, prosecutions and convictions due to having full physical video evidence (Choate, Katz & Marrow, 2016).
In addition to convictions, there are so many more benefits the body-worn cameras have for police officers. When arriving to the scene of an incident, officers are suggested to say they are recording the situation for the safety and benefit of both parties. Stating this alone serves as a reminder for the officer to conduct in an appropriate manner, as well as helps in reducing events of both verbally or physically attacks on police officers. This does not guarantee people will always act and remain calm, however it can improve the chances of a better outcome.
Since the implementation of body cameras, a recent study that included seven different police departments across the United States showed that the amount of filed complaints against a police officer has dropped from 1,539 to 113 in just 12 months of body-worn camera use (Ariel et al., 2017). These statistics display a drastic descent in complaints that are simply due to the implementation of BWCs. They have helped in the minimization of force in police-public encounters, an increase in accountability and legitimacy of the police and the reduction of falsely claimed citizen complaints (Ariel et al., 2017).
The cameras not only benefit police officers, but it benefits the public as well. A randomized study of police officers concluded that officers are open and supportive of BWCs, and they believe the cameras will help improve the behavior of both officers and citizens (Fridel, Jennings & Lynch, 2014). Officers are being required to wear these cameras, however it should be stated that they also prefer the use of body cameras as they perceive them to be beneficial and result in positive outcomes. Not only do these cameras provide safety for citizens, but they also provide another line of protection for officers. Due to these cameras, full video footage of the incident can be released to the public instead of bias and false information given from victims families to news sites or social media looking to get a public outrage over the situation. As stated, these footages are able to give a completely objective view of the situation, whether the family or the public choose to believe whether the actions of the officer were appropriate. Even though police misconduct still persists, the public has found some relief in the impartiality of the videos shared which presents what actually occurred in the situation.
Although the public has appreciated the use of body-worn cameras, when it comes to helping to lessen police misconduct and abuse from officers, one thing communities are not comfortable with is the constant monitoring. People find that their right to privacy is violated and their personal lives and living spaces are put on display for everyone to see in these videos. It it believed that people have the personal right to deny being recorded as a means of protecting their privacy. This can be a problem, considering the public was in favor of cameras as a means of protection but yet give backlash due to invading their privacy. It is as if the question needs to be asked, what is more important: your privacy or your safety? It is understandable that a person may not want their possessions in their house recorded. In keeping a person’s privacy, we forfeit capturing the behaviors of the officer and individuals involved. In this instance, we need to ask if privacy should be the main concern.
Another disadvantage to body cameras is the fact that an officer can turn his back to his partner or turn the camera off before he or his partner acts violently and inappropriately. While the cameras are supposed to help stop police brutality, officers can find ways to prevent situations from being recorded if they plan it right. This may be considered tampering of evidence as well as redacting video footage, but without the video it may be harder convicting the officer of police brutality. In the article from Taylor (2016), he states that just like a notebook can have pages ripped out, cameras can have pictures and moments deleted. The problem this article faces is the fact that difficulties occur in cases when officers have the ability to prevent the recording of encounters with the public. Another article written by Ariel (2016), brings up the same problem. He states, “leaving the decision to switch on the camera during an encounter and not before officers begin engaging with a citizen may backfire. It also defeats one of the major purposes of the camera: to record the interaction from the officer’s perspective, from beginning to end.” Without this, the officer lacks transparency, fairness and accountability.
This being said, it needs to be taken into consideration as to whether or not police body-worn cameras are more beneficial than not. While they have helped in the reduction of complaints filed against police officers, people still complain about invasion of privacy and falsely editing evidence or turning off cameras to prevent the recording of police misconduct. However, there are many ways to handle situations where the person complains of privacy violation.
According to David Bakardjiev (2015), “advocates for increased privacy policies suggest that officers should limit recording when requested and provide notice to all citizens that they are being recorded, except in extreme situations”. However, policies like this can conflict with others that attempt to collect objective evidence. What citizens say or do is entirely unpredictable. The best way to handle this situation is to record the entire encounter and then redact any personal identification information, if needed be, before the encounter is to be released to the public. It is better to have the evidence and not need it, than to need it and not have it at all. Also, in dealing with crime victims, minors or other vulnerable individuals, exceptions can be made to consider the victim’s request to turn off the camera and use another alternative method to collecting evidence like audio recording and taking pictures as long as the victim cooperates more effectively (Bakardjiev, 2015). Police departments allow citizens to review the recordings of the incident before deciding to file a complaint against a police officer, which could be a contribution to the reason filed complaints have dropped dramatically.
In the case of redacting evidence, in no way are officers allowed to personally edit BWC videos for any reason. All videos must remain in their raw and unmodified form until they are transferred into the police departments BWC database system (Bakardjiev, 2015). Edits can only be made by the Chief of Police or legal authority, and only to make redactions for public record requests and preparation of the offender’s case (Bakardjiev, 2015). Unfortunately with the law, there is still nothing that promotes the intentional exclusion of capturing video evidence. However, failing to record use-of-force events when they should requires an explanation in court, and the court can presume all things against the police officer to be true if he is found guilty of intentionally not recording the event. The only exception to not recording is if the officer responds to specific types of incidents, like serious sexual assaults, and that not recording the event is prearranged with senior staff. It can be obvious from the recording that the officer deliberately turned the camera off to hide their misconduct. Bakardjiev (2015) gives an instance, where an officer took down and knocked out the teeth of a woman who was resisting arrest, just after he turned off his camera. After this, the woman filed a complaint and because it was determined that the officer had turned his camera off prior to the physical abuse, the officer was fired from the department. So even though the event was not captured on camera, this case proves that misuse of an officer’s camera can be detected and they will be held accountable.
The increased attention of police misconduct has officers operating under constant scrutiny. Police departments have needed to propose a solution that can hold officers at a greater level accountable for their actions. The implementation of police BWCs has not only been proven to decrease the instances of filed complaints about police misconduct, but they have also been shown to increase public trust with police officers as well as show officer transparency. With any proposed solution comes backlash from the population. Serious complaints against BWCs have been made that include violation of privacy and ability to turn off cameras or edit the content. In this paper we have discussed both ethical and legal concern surrounding the use of BWCs. When it comes to an individuals privacy or safety, safety is going to take priority.
There are certain situations where recording is not necessary and the officers can respect that, but in most situations it is in best interest for both parties involved to record the encounter.
In addressing the editing video footage, under no circumstances are police officers allowed to edit the footage and it may only be redacted by legal authority. Unfortunately steps still need to be taken to ensure officers cannot turn their cameras off to prevent the recording of misconduct. When it comes to filed cases of police brutality, the court presumes all things against the police officer to be true and will charge the officer with both tampering of evidence and police misconduct. That being said, the potential disadvantages to police BWCs including violation of privacy and video redaction can be handled in the court of law. The implementation of these cameras has been a major step in helping to put an end to police brutality and misconduct. The more these cameras are adopted across the country, the stronger the relationships with communities will become.