Thousands of police officers across the country have begun to wear body cameras and tens of thousands more are expected to join the trend as a way to curb instances of both police misconduct and as a defense against unfounded complaints against police.
But the case of Eric Garner in New York, where body cameras will begin to be used on Friday, has left people wondering whether the technology can deliver as promised.
Celebrities Chris Rock and Mia Farrow echoed a common refrain among the protesters who took to the streets in New York City and elsewhere after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who put Garner in a chokehold, in an encounter that was videotaped by a bystander.
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Since Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, his parents have been calling for officers across the country to wear body cameras, technology that police departments are increasingly employing.
Research on the cameras is still extremely limited — only a few studies have been done in comparison to the thousands of police departments using cameras — but the findings show dramatic declines in both use of force by police officers and complaints brought against officers by citizens, say experts and those from police departments that have been early adopters of the technology. Challenges remain about how to store data, ensure privacy and handle other issues but cameras have extraordinary promise, those in the field say.
“This technology has the potential to redefine police-citizen encounters,” said Michael White, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University and the author of a U.S. Justice Department report on cameras, “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence.” “I don’t think this technology is going anywhere. I think it’s here to stay."
Garner, a 43-year-old father, was placed in a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17 as police arrested him on the street for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner told the officers who subdued him, “I can’t breathe.”
Pantaleo’s lawyer has said the 29-year-old officer told the grand jury that not only did he did not intend to harm Garner but that he was aware that he was being videotaped.
Police officers in three New York City precincts will begin wearing body cameras on Friday as part of a $50,000 pilot program, ordered after a court ruling last year that the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional. Mayor Bill De Blasio has said that if the program goes well, the city might budget for thousands of additional cameras next year.
New York joins communities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Miami Beach that are already using cameras or that are testing them. The small cameras, depending on the model, can be worn on the front of an officer's shirt or on glasses, a collar or a shoulder. Once an officer's shifts ends, the data is uploaded to a storage system, whether within the department or to a cloud-based one offered by the camera's manufacturer.
The president of New York City's Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, has objected to the cameras, calling them unnecessary and potentially dangerous for officers already weighted down by mace, radios, handcuffs and flashlights.
“Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it,” he said in a statement in August.
In response to Garner and Brown’s deaths and other racially charged exchanges between officers and the communities they police, President Obama on Monday proposed making $75 million available for 50,000 body cameras for departments across the country. The initiative, which would need congressional approval, would provide a 50 percent match to departments for the equipment.
“These things are good because of that civilizing affect that it can have on everybody involved - the officer who knows that his or her actions are being recorded and the members of the public who know this too,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School who writes about racial profiling and police behavior and regulation. “It’s also a superb device for collecting evidence and it’s a good way that officers can be protected from the occasional bogus complaint.”
Early Results Across U.S.
Signs of progress have emerged in Rialto, California, a small city east of Los Angeles. After half of its 54 patrol officers began wearing cameras in 2012, public complaints against police officers dropped 88 percent, from 24 in 2011 to three during the year of the study. Use of force by the police officers fell by 60 percent, from 61 to 25 instances.
“Now it’s not clear that scaling that up to size of New York City’s police department you would get the same results but if you got even half of that or a quarter of that it would be one of the most remarkable changes that policing has seen in 50 years,” Harris said.
In Mesa, Arizona, where only partial results were available, there was an estimated 60 percent decline in complaints against police officers, according to the report.
The Fort Worth, Texas, police department began acquiring cameras after some of its officers bought their own, creating issues with the storage of data, said Corporal Tracey Knight. The first department-issued cameras were used in May 2012, she said. Today, the department has the funds for 600 cameras for its 1,560 officers.
The department’s chief, Jeffrey W. Halstead, believed the cameras would show that the department's vast majority of officers behaved well, she said.
“And the very small percentage that don’t can be held accountable for their actions swiftly,” she said by email.
Challenges to Overcome With Body Cameras
Most officers reacted positively to the use of cameras though some worried supervisors would fish through footage looking for minor policy violations, she said.
Before deploying the cameras, police departments must set regulations for the storage of data and for the cameras' use, experts say.
Outfitting officers with cameras is the easy part, White said. Much more difficult is storing data securely, sometimes for years, so that it can be available as evidence in criminal and civil trails and to resolve complaints against officers.
Harris advocates not accepting an officer's version of events if a camera is off on during an encounter with the public -- provided there was no technological problem nor too little time to turn it on. Putting police video on the Internet should be an offense for which an officer is fired, he said.
Departments also need to consider concerns about privacy, once officers enter homes or businesses, and laws can vary state by state, experts say. Issues can arise with minors, people who are mentally ill or victims of sexual or domestic assault.
The American Civil Liberties Union says that although it generally takes a dim view of the proliferation of cameras, body cameras on police officers can serve as a check against abuse.
"We're against pervasive government surveillance, but when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around, we generally regard that as a good thing," says an ACLU report, "Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All."
It offers advice on control of the recordings and on limiting the threat to privacy.
The use of cameras is still so new that experts say other issues are likely to arise. More studies are needed, they say.
“There’s always a downside to technology and sometimes it does not make itself apparent until after it’s in use,” Harris said.