Police officers wear body cameras as a way to record the video and audio of events that occur when they are on the job. The goal of this technology is to provide evidence in a situation where circumstances can become heated and one’s memory of an event may be uncertain. Most law enforcement officials will wear this equipment on their torso, although specialized teams like SWAT might use a helmet-mounted version that’s similar to what military personnel use.
Although there is a surge of interest in the use of police body cameras today, this technology first entered the venue of law enforcement in the late 1990s. The first cameras were exceptionally bulky and a challenge to carry around because it was like carrying a portable camcorder from that era. Now most cameras are about the size of a shirt pocket and can affix to almost any clothing component.
The average camera weighs five ounces or less today, making them far less inconvenient. Most are capable of recording in HD. Some devices must stay on forever, while others have motion-sensor activation. There are several pros and cons of police body cameras to consider when looking at this technology, so here are some of the critical points to review.
List of the Pros of Police Body Cameras
1. Police body cameras highlight what happens in heated situations.
The purpose of police body cameras is to highlight the decision-making process of officers as they encounter heated situations. This technology does not change the ingrained behaviors of an individual. It will highlight them instead so that each choice can go through the forum of public scrutiny. The video that comes from these units is also useful in the illumination of police investigations since it can serve as evidence.
2. This technology can improve how officers behave.
The average person will behave better if they know that there is some level of accountability for their actions. When there is a noticeable camera present on the uniform of a police officer, then the interactions between the public and law enforcement officials typically become more civilized. Because the footage can also be useful as evidence if a case goes to trial, many suspects calm down from an initially aggressive response because there is an increased risk of more charges based on the direct record of their activities.
3. It provides law enforcement agencies with a new training tool.
Police officers need time to train and improve just like any other person. Athletes often watch video of themselves in specific situations so that they can understand their decision-making process at that time. By reviewing the process of events that occurred, there are more learning opportunities that can help someone make a better decision in the future. This tool works the same way for police officers.
Departments have the capability of using specific footage examples as a training tool for recruits. It is an advantage that can lead to higher levels of professional conduct up and down the chain-of-command so that there is more trust in the community.
4. The presence of police body cameras reduces community complaint numbers.
The use of body cameras by police officers in some communities has dropped the number of public complaints by up to 90%. There are also up to 60% fewer use-of-force issues that occur over a 12-month period when this technology accompanies law enforcement officials while they are working. With fewer issues to investigate, there is less money spent on fighting civil actions or intern concerns, which means there is more cash available to funnel into the work of serving and protecting people.
5. It creates useful evidence that is suitable for prosecution.
The video footage that becomes available from police body cameras is useful evidence in many legal proceedings. It is an option that can lead to a reduction of court costs because the evidence from this technology is quite convincing. There are even times when this content can provide corroborating material that backs up witness statements or written reports about an incident that occurs. Not only does this advantage create the opportunity to reduce the levels of paperwork that people face while doing their job, but it could even improve the rate of convictions and increase the number of successful plea-bargaining efforts that local prosecutors might attempt.
6. Police body cameras increase the number of citations and arrests that occur.
When the Las Vegas Police Department implemented the controlled use of body cameras on hundreds of officers, they found that their employees were more likely to issue a citation or perform an arrest while wearing the device when compared to those who did not. There were also fewer complaints about the use of force that law enforcement performed while in the community, along with a decrease in the number of official reports filed by the public. That means this advantage encourages some police officers to go “by the book” more often, which can generate more revenue for the community compared to those who are more willing to let someone off with a warning.
7. Body cameras do not get in the way of an officer performing their duty.
Some officials may bristle at the idea of adding something else to do, but the cameras used as part of their duties are not cumbersome, bulky, or obtrusive to the work being performed. Most of the devices work well with the existing uniform so that one hardly knows it is there.
The smallest cameras are about the size of a lip gloss and can be placed almost anywhere on the uniform. Even with the battery back included with the device, most people don’t even notice it is there unless they need to use it.
List of the Cons of Police Body Cameras
1. Body cameras do not change how police officers approach their job.
A recent study of over 2,500 police officers who serve in the Metro Department in Washington, D.C. found that the presence of body cameras was statistically insignificant on the impact it played on the decision-making process of an official. The use of force was still present in the same situations even with the device recording everything that happened.
This technology can prevent inappropriate comments or the occasional swearing because it changes the approach of the individual, but the training and natural response that happens in a heated situation force the instincts of a police officer to kick in instead.
2. This technology does not pick up everything that an officer sees.
A police body camera is only useful when it is pointed in the direction of a suspect or the action they are facing. That means complex situations might not receive clear and convincing video evidence of an outcome, even if there are multiple officers involved. That means the administrative reports that come from each law enforcement division are still one of the primary forms of evidence that are used to create a picture of what happened during a situation. There’s no guarantee that the quality of the video is going to be good enough to pick up a problematic incident either.
3. Some cameras will see concerns that the officer does not see.
The primary issue that surrounds the debate about police body cameras is that the perception of the technology is different than what the human brain processes when it encounters a situation. Adrenaline causes humans to develop tunnel vision when handling a situation, so something in the background that the camera picks up could be something that the police officer doesn’t register. Some devices can detect infrared images that could show the lack of a weapon or some other issue that would not be present for the law enforcement officials trying to manage the scene.
Police body cameras do an excellent job of recording scenes as they play out, but it does not have the capability of replicating the thinking process of the human who wears the device.
4. You must know the context of the incident to understand the footage.
When you see footage from a police body camera, then you are seeing an incident that occurs without any knowledge of the context. Even when the press provides an explanation for what someone might see on a video, that data is not the same as listening to the officer or the suspect while having a first-hand conversation. People are left to draw their own conclusions with this technology, which means the same incident can create multiple opinions where everyone thinks that they are correct.
5. It is expensive to purchase police body cameras for officers to use.
Law enforcement budgets are struggling to do more work with less money than at arguably any other time in American history. Many officers are asked to take on a role that is closer to that of a soldier than someone trying to serve and protect their community in this way. That’s why a price tag of $500 per unit can be devastating to a department of any size. If you have 200 officers who you want to wear a camera to protect themselves and the public from untrue accusations, then the initial expense before training and implementation could be over $100,000.
Large cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago might have enough in their budget to manage this capital expense, but smaller communities might see it as an unnecessary charge when they’re trying to make sure everyone receives the paycheck they’ve earned.
6. Police officers must use the camera correctly for it to work.
One of the most critical features of the modern police body camera is its ability to buffer. This design makes it possible for the equipment to begin pre-recording when a potential incident might occur. It will then store the most recent 30-60 seconds of footage. If that video is no longer needed because nothing happened, then it will be overwritten or deleted on a first-come, first-served basis with the data. If an officer engages the camera accidentally or forgets to have it turned on before facing a suspect, then the department will have spent all of that money for this resource without having anything to show for it.
The police officer must also remember to turn the camera on if needed. There must also be a willingness to allow the recording to continue even if the situation doesn’t feel like a favorable one to the law enforcement official.
7. Police body cameras create a privacy concern.
The body cameras that police wear will pick up the activities of everyone in the vicinity of where the lens points. People must be aware of this fact and be okay with the idea that their image or choices will appear in that footage. Since police officers often interact with individuals during some of the worst moments of their life, this record could live on through public records requests for an indefinite time. The general public could even provide a freedom of information act request to obtain some forms of footage if it is not being held as evidence.
8. There is an issue of data storage that departments must manage.
Digital storage has different demands placed on it compared to a bag of physical items that can be stored in a guarded locker. Some departments struggle to have the storage capacity or off-site access that’s necessary for the large files that video footage creates. Then there is the chain-of-custody to consider with this technology as well. Is it possible that a video or audio content from a police body camera was altered after sending it to a third-party, cloud-based provider?
There must be updates to the way that evidence storage is approached when using this technology. Since there is such a spatial component to this disadvantage, it is not unusual to see police departments having their footage for 60-90 days only unless there is a pressing need to keep it for some reason.
9. This technology changes the way that police officers approach their job.
When you have been doing the same job for 10-20 years, then the routines you develop over that time make you efficient. Telling someone to change their habits might be healthy for law enforcement and the community, but it also requires today’s police officers to have time to adapt to the situation. Expecting 100% compliance immediately from the best veteran officers across the country could be an unreasonable approach. Ongoing training must occur to maximize the benefits of this technology, which adds another expense to the departments that are already strapped for cash.
10. Cameras might stop some witnesses from helping an investigation.
People don’t like to appear on camera unless there is a specific reason for them to do so. When officers investigate a sensitive scene or disturbing case, the knowledge that an interview could be taped even though they are standing in their home could stop some people from cooperating. It may even prevent some officers from having access to a home since the film could act as a low-level search upon return. That means society may need to reassess its stance on the idea that if you’re not guilty, then you have nothing to hide because any interaction with law enforcement might put everything you have and who you are into a permanent storage facility.
11. There is no guarantee that the technology will work.
Technology is only as good as the people who create it. Items like police body cameras are also considered to be a consumable item. It is going to wear out when you’re using it every day. That means an officer can do everything right and then still have their camera malfunction. Batteries are known to stop charging sometimes for unknown reasons. Even something simple, like an unknown lens obstruction, could cause an issue with the collected footage.
You’re even running the risk of having the video files be accidentally deleted during the transfer to storage or its recovery for evidence review. There are a lot of unknowns that can happen, which means careful management is mandatory.
Most people in the United States are in favor of the idea of using police body cameras. The idea of having another layer of accountability for police officers is something that law enforcement agencies embrace as well.
There are valid technologically-based concerns to think about when using cameras while on the job. It is not a 100% guaranteed system that will ensure every situation receives a pure data file that is useful as evidence. It is also important to note that the act of being more accountable, even if it fails, can engender more trust in a community.
The pros and cons of police body cameras are essential to review because this technology will continue to evolve. As the equipment becomes smaller and batteries become more useful, we might start seeing officers with multiple cameras and data collection tools to assist in their work.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.