In the wake of events like those in Ferguson, Missouri this past year, much of American Law Enforcement is now under close scrutiny from the public. One of the ways to counteract this is with the spread and increased use of body worn cameras. Only a few years ago body worn cameras were only occasionally used, but after recent events they’ve become a hot topic issue. By the end of 2014 President Obama was promoting the use of use of body worn cameras by law enforcement, which helped even further launch them into the spotlight. Everyone wanted cameras to be used immediately. Yet, despite all of this there still hasn’t been much in the way of federal grants for body worn cameras. Even though the Body Worn Camera Act has received bi-partisan support, that still hasn’t shaken the many issues that exist with this new and highly sought after technology.
It’s particularly unusual for a bill to receive as much bi-partisan support as the Body Worn Camera Act has, given how polarized Capitol Hill finds most issues. However, both liberal and conservative politicians have been supportive of the use of body worn cameras, but for different reasons. On one side, supporters want body worn cameras to assist law enforcement officers in proving their compliance to the law and making sure their reports of incidents remain honest. The other side also supports the use of body worn cameras to monitor law enforcement activity and hold officers accountable, and hopefully prevent unnecessary altercations. However, for many people, body worn cameras are new territory, and they don’t fully understand how they work and how they could affect officer behavior.
Pilot studies conducted by different university-based researches concluded that the use of body-worn cameras is reported to have a “civilizing effect” on police-civilian interactions, and to cause a reduction in use-of-force incidents. This effect is caused by the officers being fully aware of the fact that they’re being recorded, as well as civilians they interact with. Essentially, many civilians and officers are more at ease knowing that an unbiased camera is taking record of their exchanges. Additionally, reports against law enforcement officers decreased in the areas where these studies took place. With this in mind it seems like there would be no issue pushing any bill, which promoted the use of this technology.
One of the many problems with heavy use of body worn cameras is a public-records issue. All recordings must be reviewed and private details removed before it is released to the public, which is a costly and time-consuming process to go through. Additionally, storage of this footage is a major issue. The amount of data created by body worn cameras is immense and needs massive storage space to house it all, which is something most departments are not equipped to handle. Another issue with body worn cameras is many areas have different laws and policies regarding when the cameras can be used, or if they even need to be used at all. Many states require law enforcement to inform civilians when they are being recorded, which can pose an issue if an officer is undercover or does not want the civilian to know they’re on camera. Video evidence can also be taken out of context or misinterpreted in court, which is another setback for the technology.
Despite the multiple setbacks, Capitol Hill has not stopped its need for body worn cameras. As of May 1st 2015, a new federal grant was released to assist law enforcement agencies in the purchasing of body worn cameras. While it’s only the first in a longer series, this grant will likely help in the short term while a larger and much more robust program is approved over the next year. Controversial as they may be, body worn cameras are likely to be one of the biggest staples to law enforcement gear.