Even after what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, I was hesitant to support mandatory body cameras.
Even after what happened in Baltimore, I was hesitant to support mandatory body cameras.
Even after the continued uproar, the controversies, and the headlines, I was hesitant to support mandatory body cameras for police officers.
My hesitation wasn’t because I didn’t want controversial incidents to be recorded. My hesitation was because I suspected there were implications that some had not considered. As more time has passed, I’ve come to the conclusion that those implications are secondary to the larger issues concerning police – community relations at this moment. But, those implications still exists and will have to be addressed as the use of body cameras becomes more prevalent.
The Loss of Discretion by Police Officers
One consideration few body camera advocates take into account is the potential reduction in the use of officer discretion. Every interaction an officer has will come under heavy scrutiny and will be second-guessed by his/her chain of command as well as the public. This will result in standardized enforcement and less room for judgment calls out on the street.
I know an officer who used to audio record his traffic stops (this is fifteen years ago). An accusation was made against him and he gladly turned over the audio tape to internal affairs. The recording of that traffic stop exonerated him. However, an investigator listed to the audio of another encounter in which the officer cut a kid a break for a minor offense and, rather than arresting him, called the kid’s parents to come pick him up. Did the kid need a criminal record? No. But, someone in a position to Monday morning quarterback the officer thought otherwise and he was disciplined. But, perhaps you think officer discretion is a bad thing and that our law enforcement officers should always enforce the law strictly by the criminal code.
Of course, you’ll have to remember that each time you get a speeding ticket for going 70 mph in a 65 mph zone. You’ll have to be understanding when an officer gives you a citation for drinking alcohol in public outside a sporting event because it’s technically illegal according to some state or local statute. You’ll have to respect the fact that the public won’t be getting as many breaks because every interaction will be subject to scrutiny. If your sixteen year old kid gets caught with a beer, the officer may not poor the suds in the grass and allow you to administer discipline, but instead will put your child into the legal system. This is likely to create more tension with the public and result in accusations that the police are being overly harsh, but this is the new world in which we are choosing to live. And I’ve finally come around to believe this is going to be necessary.
The Bad Ones
We’ve all seen the stories in the media that concern bad cops getting caught doing something that is clearly wrong by their own, or another officer’s body cam footage. This is a good thing. No doubt. If a law enforcement officer violates someone’s rights or abuses their power, then they need to face the consequences. Great.
The Tough Calls
Then there is the footage we’ve seen of officer’s making split-second decisions that aren’t quite as clear cut. These are judgment calls and some members of the public may see an abuse of power, while others see justifiable action. These incidents fall into gray areas and, depending on how the story is being spun, can lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Some of these problems are brought on by the way police have been portrayed in fiction, which I’m mentioned before.
The Exonerations You Do Not See on TV
Then there is the footage you don’t see as often. These are the body cam clips that completely exonerate officers and disprove false accusations of excessive force, racial profiling, or criminal activity. These clips are out there and there are dozens if not hundreds of them. But these clips usually aren’t put on the 6:00 news, because to many out there good policing isn’t as interesting bad policing. Due to inconsistent body camera policies between departments and no centralized reporting mechanism, getting statistics on exonerations is difficult. However, I’m certain body cameras and dash cameras have prevented or disproven scores of false accusations already.
Lately, I’ve thought back to when I worked as a patrol officer in Virginia and how I received three citizen complaints during my time there. Each of them was investigated and labeled “unfounded”, but I’d bet at least two of those complaints would never have been filed if I would have been able to say, “Sir, you’re on camera and this entire conversation has been recorded.” (The third complaint accused me of lying to a suspect during an interrogation. Which I did. Because you can, as long as you aren’t lying about a person’s rights. But, that’s another topic.)
Protection for All Outweighs Breaks for Some
It took a while for me to get here, but after weighing the pros and cons of police body cameras, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are necessary for EVERYONE’S protection – including the police who serve us honorably every day. There are plenty of other issues to work out, to include costs and training, and some major legal questions exist.
For instance, some have argued that body camera footage should be public record. That’s nuts. If you had a loud verbal argument with your spouse and the police had to respond to your home, do you want all of that on YouTube. Of course not. Some have argued that body camera footage should never be made public. That’s equally as nuts. Of course there will be times when the footage will need to be released in order for departments to maintain some level of transparency. The answer is somewhere in between and will have to be determined by those who specialize in privacy law and police matters. But, as a tool, body cameras are here to stay and that’s not a bad thing for our society.
Any thoughts on body cameras for police? Leave a comment!
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology