The Necessity and Reality of Police Officers Wearing Body Cameras
Public scrutiny of police interactions has been growing over the past few years. This has mainly been publicized in the realm of perceptions regarding racially provoked police shootings. With the technological advancements in our modern time, police officers have the ability to record and document their interactions with citizens. But should they? There are a lot of arguments to consider when tackling a situation that has been a constant subject of debate.
Body cameras are tiny recording devices worn by police officers, usually on their chest, that capture their interaction with a private citizen. Generally, these devices are used when an officer conducts a traffic stop, responds to the scene of crime, interviews witnesses, or any other task in the performance of their duty. The device can capture both video and audio of their interaction.
Despite what we see in the media, police officer shootings, while troubling, are a tiny fraction of police incidents subject to scrutiny. Right or wrong, police officers are consistently subject to review and examination. As a criminal defense attorney, I consistently hear from clients about how they were treated by police during their traffic stops, interactions, and arrests. These interactions translate to legal issues effecting the outcome and life of the client. An officer’s actions can result in a suppression hearing where a client is claiming: the officer acted illegally and therefore all the evidence they found should be thrown out or a client was coerced into making a statement due to duress or threats from an officer. In these hearings, questions regarding an officer’s truthfulness are constantly analyzed. Did my client actually confess? Did my client actually consent to a search? Did the officer actually see contraband before they searched? Also, questions regarding an officer’s treatment of a citizen during their interactions are a subject of internal reviews and complaints.
There are multiple arguments both pro and con body cameras. Ultimately, it comes down to two main factors:
The most common argument for body cameras is that they promote transparency. It allows citizens to see what actually occurs when police confront a citizen and we don’t have to rely on testimony from opposing parties. We are able to watch a video to see and hear what truly happened. This type of situation can prevent police misconduct and protect police from false claims against them or their department. Additionally, these videos can be used by departments as training tools for better policing practices and as learning experiences. The need for a Judge to guess or assume what occurred during an interaction becomes moot when they can view the incident and apply the law.
However, not everyone reacts well to being recorded. Some people can react violently because they don’t want to be recorded during what can be an embarrassing or private moment in their lives. Furthermore, a lot of police investigations stem from information gathered from the people they encounter. Those people may be reluctant to talk to police if they are being recorded which in turn makes it extremely difficult for police to do certain aspects of their job. Additionally, police departments have concerns regarding unfair scrutiny. There is no doubt police officers work in hostile situations and need to make split second decisions for the safety of themselves and others. An officer should be more focused on controlling a situation and doing their job than whether what they are doing is going to be subject to an internal review.
A major issue for police departments are the costs of supplying their officers with body cameras. The cost to supply this equipment depends on the size of the department, but it can be a couple hundred thousand if not millions of dollars. This cost goes above and beyond the actual camera itself. Thousands of dollars are needed for the storage, repair, and upkeep of this equipment. Police officer interactions can range from a few minutes to over an hour. Depending on the jurisdiction, an officer can have over a dozen calls per shift. The cost to store all of these interactions as well as repair and update the equipment, especially if damaged during a hostile interaction, can become astronomical.
In a court system, a split-second interaction with a police officer can be the subject of hours long examination and review. I do believe most police departments would be in favor of body cameras if they could afford it. As a criminal defense attorney, I believe transparency is extremely important. Video and audio of what actually occurred is almost impossible to refute in court. Seeing what actually happened during a police officer encounter as well as what was actually said by the police officer and my client can be the difference between a suppression of evidence or between a guilty and not guilty.
By: Jonathan R. White, Esquire
Contact Jonathan R. White for a criminal law consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (717) 975-9446