Cameras are now as ubiquitous in modern society as cellphones and already come as standard equipment on most models. But members of the technology-obsessed public aren’t the only ones armed with the ability to record what they see; many departments have discovered that outfitting officers with video capabilities translates to fewer lawsuits, better relationships within their communities and lower officer stress levels. Like it or not, recording what we do on the job is the new normal.
Bad press, good press
If there’s a single case that illustrates how videos taken by participants or bystanders can blacken an agency’s eye, it’s this recent one involving a female Canadian officer. The officer in question has been the subject of numerous complaints and allegations of police brutality. Although several of the charges filed against her have been dismissed, the public keeps pointing their camera phones in her direction, and eventually she was taped in connection with two incidents that led to her suspension: pepper spraying a crowd of students and getting into a profanity-laced scuffle with a man who exited his apartment, open beer in hand.
Her large, metropolitan agency—unable to ignore postings of the video showing the officer struggling with the individual, and later letting loose with a string of insults and curse words—finally placed her on suspension. The incident created an enormous amount of bad publicity for the department in the wake of allegations of improper conduct.
But taping working police also has its up side. Witness, for example, the tragic September 2009 Kansas City, Missouri, case in which officers engaged in a fatal shoot-out with a man who had crashed his car into a tree, only to suddenly emerge and open fire on them. The man was shot to death, and the shooting was ruled “justifiable.” The crucial evidence provided by the dashboard-mounted camera made the decision swift and decisive—a fortunate outcome for the officers who were only doing their jobs under the worst possible conditions.
In the first case, police and the officer accused of inappropriate behavior have caught the negative side of public opinion. In the latter case, two officers who could have spent months explaining and defending themselves were exonerated both officially and in the court of public opinion within a relatively short amount of time. For most departments, the benefits of taping outweigh the negatives.
Turning the tables
In October of 2012, Salt Lake City’s Police Chief Chris Burbank asked his citizen review board to support his proposal to equip some of his officers with cameras, to be worn on their uniforms or specially-equipped glasses. The cameras, Burbank told the board, would serve to document the officers’ actions in the field, allowing for more openness and transparency in the process. The board not only agreed, but its members were excited by the idea, as long as the cameras didn’t compromise citizen privacy. It was estimated that the systems under consideration would cost about $1,000 per unit.
Salt Lake isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, department to contemplate adding cameras to its regimen. Although dash cams have become relatively commonplace, particularly with traffic officers and state patrols, body cameras—commonly known as on-body recording systems (OBRS)—are more unusual and often more controversial with both officers and the public. But, as many experts point out, arming an officer with a camera can help bulletproof a department’s defense when it comes to liability, both in the civil and criminal sense. In fact, former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher says that in addition to cameras, departments should also have specific use policies in place.
Streicher, who has worked with TASER International, developer of the AXON Flex on-officer camera system, and ACLU board member and civil rights attorney, Scott Greenwood, have constructed a model policy to guide departments wading into unknown video waters. That policy, says Streicher, allows agencies to avoid unnecessary litigation.