Can Body Cameras 'Civilize' Police Encounters?

Sep 5, 2014
Originally published on September 8, 2014 10:34 am

Some critics have argued that if Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson had worn a camera, we might have a better idea of the events that led to his fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown last month. Instead, we have the sharply different accounts of Wilson and a bystander.

Calls for body cameras have grown louder in recent weeks, and some Ferguson police officers started wearing them last week.

"Body-worn cameras provide a permanent video record of what happens during a police-citizen encounter," criminologist Michael White tells NPR's Don Gonyea.

White wrote a Department of Justice report on the use of these cameras by police. In it, he summarizes the arguments for and against the technology. White believes more research needs to be done, but studies suggest body-worn cameras may improve the outcomes of potentially explosive encounters.


Interview Highlights

On the promising "Rialto study"

There was a really remarkable drop in complaints against officers who were wearing cameras. We're talking on the order of 88 or 90 percent. That is truly remarkable. Officer use of force also dropped. ... So, a lot of people have been talking about those findings and suggesting that when officers wear cameras, it changes the dynamics of the encounter. The term I use is, it has a 'civilizing effect.' That is, officers are less likely to engage in rude or inappropriate behavior, and citizens are less likely to be aggressive and resistant.

On potential downsides of body-worn cameras

Clearly, there are times when citizens have an expectation of privacy that could potentially be violated by a police officer's use of a body-worn camera — the interview of a child, the interview of a sexual assault victim, for example. ... Perhaps a police officer is talking to a confidential informant or someone else trying to get intelligence on criminal activity. When that encounter is recorded, it becomes, in many places, a public document that can be requested by citizens, by press and certainly by prosecutors.

It's clear that police officers and police unions have not universally embraced this technology. They have concerns about when cameras will be on and off, when supervisors can go and review footage. And then, perhaps most importantly, how are you going to store the tremendous amount of video data that's generated by officers wearing these cameras?

On Ferguson's quick adoption of cameras

The Phoenix Police Department went through a process to review all the evidence, to engage all the stakeholders. So they took about 9 months from start to finish before officers started wearing cameras in the field. ... The death of Mike Brown was less than a month ago, so they [Ferguson police] are certainly moving at lightning speed. My hope is that they have worked through some of these concerns that we have talked about. Otherwise, they may have additional issues arising that they're going to have to deal with.

The public relations company handling media inquiries for the city of Ferguson did not reply to requests for comment on its officers' recent use of body-worn cameras.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

This week, some Ferguson police officers started wearing body cameras - small video recording devices attached to their lapels. The officer who shot Michael Brown was not wearing one. Had he been, perhaps we would have a clearer picture of what happened says criminologist Michael White.

MICHAEL WHITE: Body-worn cameras provide a permanent video record of what happens during a police-citizen encounter.

GONYEA: White wrote a Justice Department report on the use of this technology. He says more research is needed, but there are signs that recording video of those run-ins can change the behavior of police officers, civilians or both. The strongest evidence comes from the police department of Rialto, a city in Southern California.

WHITE: What we saw with the Rialto study is that the officers who wore cameras experienced significant changes in a couple of different dimensions. First of all, there was a really remarkable drop in complaints against officers who were wearing cameras. We're talking on the order of 88 or 90 percent. That is truly remarkable. The other finding, which is also nearly as large, is officer use of force. Officer use of force also dropped - not quite as a big drop as the complaints - but also really, really substantial drops. So a lot of people have been talking about those findings and suggesting that when officers wear cameras, it changes the dynamics of the encounter. The term I use is it has a civilizing effect. That is, officers are less likely to engage in rude or inappropriate behavior, and citizens are less likely to be aggressive and resistive.

GONYEA: So what are some of the downsides that people cite - some pretty pragmatic concerns I would guess?

WHITE: I think the first to address is privacy. Clearly, there are times where citizens have an expectation of privacy. They could potentially be violated by a police officer's use of a body-worn camera. There are also - I can think of a number of citizen encounters with police that it would be inappropriate to record the interview of a child, the interview of a sexual assault victim, for example.

GONYEA: There are so many conversations a police officer has with citizens or victims of a crime where that person may not want to be recorded, may be reluctant to talk candidly if they're being recorded.

WHITE: That's absolutely correct. Perhaps a police officer is talking to a confidential informant or talking to someone else trying to get intelligence on criminal activity. You know, the fact of the matter is that when that encounter is recorded, it becomes, in many places, a public document that can be requested by citizens, by press and certainly by prosecutors. The other dimension of privacy involves officer privacy. And it's clear now that police officers and police unions have not universally embraced this technology. They have concerns as well. They have concerns about when cameras will be on and off, when supervisors can go and review footage. And then perhaps most importantly, how are you going to store the tremendous amount of video data that's generated by officers wearing these cameras?

GONYEA: Some police chiefs say it's not a question of if but when this becomes a major part of policing. What do you think?

WHITE: You know, I think that that is true. There are 18,000 police departments in the United States. And if you look at the estimates of some of the primary manufacturers or vendors, there may be as many as 5,000 apartments now that have experimented with the technology. So I think that given the events that have transpired over the last month, I think that there could be widespread adoption of body-worn cameras by police departments over the next couple of years.

GONYEA: And we do know that one department that is just starting to use the cameras is in Ferguson. I guess no surprise there.

WHITE: That's correct. And, you know, the Phoenix Police Department, they went through a process to review all the evidence to engage all the stakeholders so they took about nine months from start to finish before officers started wearing cameras in the field. And the death of Mike Brown was less than a month ago, so they are certainly moving at lightning-speed. And my hope is that they have worked through some of these concerns that we've talked about. Otherwise, they may have additional issues arising that they're going to have to deal with.

GONYEA: Dr. Michael White, thanks for talking to us.

WHITE: Thank you, Tom.

GONYEA: Dr. White is a criminologist at Arizona State University.

GONYEA: And this note about an issue with the use of body cameras by police in New Orleans- the NOPD started issuing cameras to officers back in April. But a report out this week shows they're only recording about a third of interactions between officers and civilians. The report cites issues over, quote, "proper use, making sure the cameras are functional and that officers are turning them on when they're supposed to." The NOPD says it will address the issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.