Do Body Cameras Increase Police Accountability?

July 24th 2015

Thor Benson

With the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and too many others, citizens are increasingly looking for ways to sort out the details of why a citizen was killed by a police officer. One possible solution that has arisen is having police wear body cameras that could capture footage to help get a better understanding of each situation's circumstances. However, not everyone is sure video footage will help or exactly what way it could be used to fix the problem. As we saw with Garner's death, a clear video can be heavily disputed.

Nadia Kayyali, an activist for a nonprofit digital rights groups called the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told ATTN: there are still many questions that need to be answered. Who controls the footage once it's taken? Should we let body cameras record inside someone's house? Should the officer be allowed to decide when to turn the camera off?

Some studies have shown police wearing body cameras can indeed reduce police use of force. A study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology last year found use of force was reduced by roughly 50 percent over the course of a year in Rialto, Calif. when body cameras were put to use. There is clearly potential, but each police department will likely carry out how cameras are used differently.

The LAPD, for example, implemented a police body camera program, and footage of a homeless man Charly Keunang being shot to death by an officer was recorded on a body camera. Once the incident gained public attention and citizens demanded to see the footage, the police department immediately denied allowing the footage be released to the public. The LAPD has since created a policy that doesn't let footage be released. "The power we give to police officers to use force, even to take human life, is extraordinary – and the public deserves to understand how that power is used, not to be told ‘just trust us,’" the Southern California ACLU branch said in a statement at the time.

Since police departments often stand by what their officers did after controversial shootings, many think footage will do little to help increase accountability, if departments control when it can be released. Some have proposed the idea of independent groups controlling the footage or instituting policies where footage must be released if a citizen is killed or seriously injured. "I haven't heard of any department that had that data stored completely out of police control," Kayyali said.

Many, like the EFF and the ACLU, are also worried about body cameras being used as another form of surveillance. "We think there is a very serious question as to whether the potential privacy violations outweigh the potential benefit," Kayyali said. If you let an officer in your house so they can ask you some questions, there is potential for them having a video of the inside of your house, which makes many people uncomfortable. Beyond that, police could have video of any number of other private situations.

Kayyali said there is also concern over if footage would be used by officers to "refresh their memory before writing reports." If an officer knows what the video looks like, they can create a story that fits what is seen in the video.

The EFF has recommended not allowing police to control when the video is on or off (unless perhaps there is an accepted reason like privacy), police must notify citizen when they're being recorded, footage shouldn't be stored indefinitely and footage should only be used "for misconduct hearings and where there is a reasonable suspicion that a recording has evidence of a crime."

Something that should also be noted is police body cameras are not just for catching the police when they do something wrong. On the opposite side of the coin, when a police officer didn't do anything wrong, the footage can be used to demonstrate that. The technology can be used to catch bad cops and set free the good ones, but it's clear certain rules need to be agreed upon.