Video cameras? Yes please! Give me one. Maybe two or three.
I am absolutely a HUGE proponent of law enforcement using in-car and body mounted cameras. Some ask why I feel so strongly about the subject, and to them I offer the following personal anecdote.
I have personally benefited greatly from the video obtained by a digital video camera, the in-car camera system in my patrol car. A number of years ago, I was involved in an incident where, as I arrived at the scene of a call, I came under fire by a suspect armed with a rifle. I survived the firefight, he did not. Since this incident occurred in a residential suburban neighborhood, at night, there was no one else around. Without my in-car camera, it could have been my word against the word of bereaved family members, who were not present, telling their story of woe and how their lost loved one was a good guy who would never hurt anyone. Sound remotely familiar? Like an incident that happened just weeks ago in St. Louis? Sandwich gun? (RELATED: Police Officer: Trust Me, Ferguson Changed Everything)
There was much more to that story, I have only given the condensed version. The second part of that incident was captured by three different digital video cameras: mine, my cover officer’s and a third camera on a passing public transit bus. While that incident would likely have never reached a Ferguson level, even without video, it was quickly put to rest thanks to all the video evidence. There were no concerns about “faulty memories” or “blurry recollections,” or worse, concerns about lying cops. It was all there, on video, in vivid color. Case closed.
This has happened time and again when allegations of officer misconduct up to and including officer-involved shootings are captured on camera. Very often, the officer’s camera saves the officer’s butt. Recently, a preacher in North Carolina made allegations that an officer had mistreated him during a vehicle stop. The police department responded by releasing video captured by the in-car camera. That video clearly shows the officer being polite and professional. Yet another instance of a camera saving the day.
Law enforcement video cameras, both body cameras and in-car cameras, have been in the news quite a bit lately. When I started my career, the only camera we had available to us as regular patrol cops was a Polaroid instant camera, and if you were lucky, you managed to score some color film for it. Fast forward about five years and I was on the team to evaluate the various options considered for my department’s first in-car camera system. The one we chose was a large, clunky system that recorded on VHS tapes, but it worked.
The problem with that first system, other than the difficulty of storing the video tapes, was not a problem with the system itself, but rather in getting the cops to accept it. The big brother rumors were flying like crazy. Many of the “OG” cops were adamantly opposed to them, initially. Slowly, as the video captured by those cameras was shown to help us (the cops) far more than it ever was used to hurt us, even some of the staunchest haters started to change their tune.
Our latest version of the in-car camera system has two digital HD cameras that capture a forward view out the windshield and the rear seat of the patrol car. The system is excellent and the video quality is phenomenal. Sadly, only a few cars have so far installed that new system, but they are slowly being phased in.
While the in-car camera has become fairly commonplace and widely accepted in law enforcement, another recent invention, the body camera, has not. A few agencies have deployed them, but right now those are the exceptions to the rule. Expect that to change, very quickly.
Incidents like Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting in Ferguson, and the more recent shooting of the ”teen armed only with a sandwich,” who somehow tested positive for gunshot residue, would have been quickly solved had the officer been wearing body cameras. It would be impossible to call the veracity of the officer’s narrative into question if anyone could watch the video and judge for themselves.
The following is an excellent example of a video that captured an officer involved shooting, which removes any and all doubt about what occurred. The shooting took place in Daytona in September, 2013. Caution, this video is graphic and shows the actual shooting of the suspect.
However, as much as I am in favor of body cameras, they definitely present some problems that in-car cameras do not. Unlike in-car cameras, which can be set up to activate automatically when the emergency lights are activated or when crash sensors think a collision has occurred, body cams do not have the same abilities. This begs the question, when is the camera supposed to be active and when is the officer allowed to turn it off? If it is only to be activated during an encounter with the public, what happens if the officer in an extremely urgent situation forgets to activate his body cam?
There are also public privacy concerns. In normal daily activity these might not be a problem, but when officers take statements from a molested child or sexual assault victim, the camera’s presence could be a big concern, for good reason.
My last concern is a pissed-off supervisor on a witch hunt. Anyone who has been working long enough has likely encountered a supervisor on a job who made it their personal mission to punish employees. Sadly, those sorry folks also find their way into law enforcement. In my law enforcement career, I have witnessed an angry supervisor (long retired now) perform an illegal search of an employee’s locker because he was looking for dirt on that employee. I know of current, spiteful supervisors who have reviewed months’ worth of the GPS data collected by our computer dispatch system to try and build a case on an employee who they did not like. I can only imagine what similarly minded people would do with access to body camera footage.
Despite those concerns, I am a strong supporter of body cameras. Like everything in life, there are pros and cons that need to be considered; but, in my mind, the benefits offered by body cameras far outweigh any disadvantages.