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If you wanted to point to positive changes that have resulted from the recent events in Ferguson, this might be a good place to start: Ferguson police have started wearing body cameras.  It’s a good start because it addresses two of the primary issues that communities nationwide are having with local police departments:

1. Improper Use of Force
2. Lack of Accountability

But can cameras alone help stem these two pervasive problems? Studies suggest that they can.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?):

Although there is not much data on the effectiveness of wearable cameras, the studies that are available are compelling. The most cited research revolved around a randomized control study done in Rialto, CA. The study found that:

After cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%.

Another study, done in Mesa, AZ found that:

Officers equipped with body-worn cameras conducted significantly fewer stop and frisks and arrests than officers who were not wearing the technology, suggesting that the presence of a camera may have led officers to think more carefully about what constitutes reasonable suspicion in stop-and-frisk situations and probable cause during arrests. 

Why should there be such a dramatic change? In a word: accountability. People have all heard stories about police officers lying to protect other officers. The practice is so prevalent, it even has a name: The Blue Code of Silence. However, video cameras have the ability to break that code, not just by providing evidence, but also by changing the mindset of the people being recorded:

What happens when police wear cameras isn’t simply that tamper-proof recording devices provide an objective record of an encounter—though some of the reduction in complaints is apparently because of citizens declining to contest video evidence of their behavior—but a modification of the psychology of everyone involved.

The fact that people act differently when they know someone is watching is a well documented psychological phenomenon called the Hawthorne Effect or the Observer Effect. But, those effects only work if people know they are being watched. And, they go away when the watching stops.

No Kill Switch

If body cameras are to be effective, the officers wearing them should not be able to turn them off, destroy the footage, or otherwise render them inoperable. Although this seems like an obvious requirement, numerous departments don’t follow it. The results are not surprising.

Take the case of Angela Garbirino, who was arrested by Shreveport police on suspicion of DWI. The interrogation room she was being held in was equipped with a video camera. However, the camera had an off switch that allowed officers to disable it. Footage obtained from the camera is quite telling. In one shot, she is sitting in a chair head down. The officer turns off the camera. And, when it resumes, Garbirino is on the floor lying in a pool of her own blood.

Or, look at Armand Bennet. The 26 year old from Algiers, LA was pulled over by NOPD officer Lisa Lewis. The officer was equipped with a body camera. But, she had conveniently turned it off before shooting Bennett in the head.

These are not isolated incidents.

If there is one weapon that has fueled awareness of police misconduct in the United States, it is the video camera. One of the best ways to deter bad police behavior is to record it. And, what better way to record it than to put cameras on the police officers themselves?

In the future, I hope that all police officers have cameras. But, in order for the deterrent to work, they can’t be allowed to turn them off. And, there need to be stiff penalties in place (ie, not a paid vacation) if by coincidence, something bad happens while the camera is not recording.

It’s about time that “Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law” went both ways.


One Response

  1. Jesse

    I believe that many of these accusations were false to get out of trouble. Also I hope the police can have the ability to turn it off and on at will or the amount of informants will go down. This stiffles investigations if informants will get caught on film. Any investigation could limited even from the victim. The main reseason some of the police brutality went down is because too many accusations were made they may not have been true or thought they were true.


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