How police body cameras work — and why we still have problems

published on August 2, 2020

Today half of the nation's law enforcement officers wear cameras i wanted to better understand the tech behind these body cam systems and more importantly find out are they making a difference what i

Learned is the tech itself isn't so much an issue the real problems lie elsewhere let's break it down in 2014 a white policeman killed 18 year old michael brown

In ferguson missouri brown was unarmed and shot six times there was no video footage of the incident and no charges brought against the officer brown's family joined the call for all

Police to wear body cameras in order to hold them accountable for their actions you see the theory is simple a recording camera has the power to change behavior for the better footage can increase transparency to the

Public and in turn it improves community trust in the police right well that's quite a heavy mission for one piece of tech with the ongoing global protests calling for police

Reform more governments are turning to body cameras as a solution colorado recently passed a bill that requires all state and local officers to wear cameras by 2023 congress is proposing legislation

That would require body cams for all federal officers and canadian prime minister justin trudeau is pushing for the same for all canadian police but before we can determine if body cameras

Can make a difference we need to first go cover how the tech works there are more than 60 companies now making body cameras many are clipped to the chest or the shoulder

But some cameras are embedded in sunglasses and hats so there is a lot of variation of what officers can wear there's even some departments using cameras mounted on

Guns which is pretty new but most of the tech being deployed today is a camera worn on the body and most of these cameras do require an officer to manually start and stop the recording you see that gives an officer the

Freedom to use discretion when they hit the record button you may not want to record at certain times such as when they are inside a hospital when they are having a private conversation or

When they're at lunch now there are some models that can be programmed to automatically record when the camera detects an action or if the car reaches a certain speed or when an officer pulls a taser or a

Gun from a holster the cameras themselves don't cost that much the real pain point for budgets is the storage these cameras require cloud storage for thousands of hours of video

You figure that every officer maybe records three or four hours of video in a shift and how long that video is stored is sometimes set by local guidelines it could be days months or

Years now for a large police department storage could run into the millions of dollars a study by the non-profit police executive research forum found large departments could spend

Anywhere from thirty thousand dollars to four million dollars a year on storage it's at the point where some departments are pulling out of using cameras just because of the costs a recent report from the washington post cited a

Few examples the wahoo nebraska police department they were looking at fifteen thousand dollar yearly storage bills for a team of only five officers over in arlington county virginia the police

Department decided not to use cameras after a pilot program found it would cost three hundred thousand dollars a year just in cloud costs there are federal grants that help cover

The cost of the equipment but not for the ongoing storage costs that's the technology of body cams but what about the question if these are helping keep police accountable and communities safer body-worn cameras

Have not delivered on some of the lofty uh goals that have been set and and to be honest those were not realistic goals technology like a camera is not going to not going to change

Decades of tension and antagonism between police and a minority community that's mike white who has been living and breathing this topic for five years he co-wrote a book worked on several studies and helped come up with body cam

Training programs for police across the country there are a number of reasons that cameras are not curing all the ills and it mostly comes down to how different departments use the

Cameras for example not every department has clear discipline when an officer doesn't turn on or activate their camera there's been some study of activation rates and

They vary tremendously some officers rarely activate they continually violate the policy day in and day out well other officers activate all the time and if the department is not tracking activation

And it's not responding to officers who have low activation rates that creates a huge problem in terms of police accountability because it's only a matter

Of time before you have one of those officers involved in a use of force or a critical incident during protests in louisville kentucky police officers did not have their body cameras on

When david mcatee a local business owner was shot by law enforcement while he was inside his own restaurant this led to the louisville mayor firing the city's chief of police i learned that the body cameras of the

Officers present were not activated this type of institutional failure will not be tolerated the officers that did not turn on their cameras a violation of department policy

Were placed on leave now although mcatee was shot by the national guard having cameras on may have given us more answers on what exactly went down when the police also opened fire to not have body cameras on

Is unacceptable but let's look at the question of if cameras are a positive influence on changing behavior there is some positive news here a number of studies found cameras

Led to a decrease in public complaints about police officers so that's something but so far there isn't strong data that shows if cameras alone are making police act differently and

There's no data suggesting people view cops with cameras more favorably last year a team at george mason university looked at 70 different studies done on body camera effects and found

There just wasn't enough statistically relevant data to say that body cameras could improve police performance accountability or relationships with citizens there's also little information about

How often the public is granted access to police body cam footage here's body cam researcher andrea headley an assistant professor at georgetown university one of the things that i have been a

Little disheartened by is that we know so much in the research now about how body cameras impact or don't impact police performance outcomes right like arrests you support citations

But we don't know really what cameras how cameras impact transparency and accountability at all we don't have any direct measures of how many people have made requests for

Footages and how those have been denied or allowed or what the processes look like across police departments for accessing videos sometimes it takes years for investigative journalists to access body cam footage

The newspaper dallas morning news had to fight for three years to get this video which showed how cops pinned 32 year old tony timpa until he died and even when we managed to get the

Footage it's unclear if departments actually discipline the officers that happened after journalists at the new york times and the intercept discovered that one cop in new york was potentially planting drugs on people

Yeah but access to footage is at the discretion of departments sometimes there are local and state laws influencing how or if a video is released and there's no federal law

Requiring footage to be released some cities are starting to take steps in that direction including the nation's largest police force with nearly 40 thousand cops the new policy effectively immediately

All video and audio footage of incidents must be released in 30 days under public pressure from the 2020 black lives matter protests new york city's mayor ordered that the nypd would quickly release body cam

Footage anytime someone dies or gets seriously hurt by police but what if body cam footage was actually monitored in real time some cameras today have a feature for

Live streaming when the camera is activated a supervisor would have the power to just press a button and see what subordinates are doing in real time but in the end the tech is only a tool

Video alone can't bring accountability if the rules aren't in place to enforce behavior and access to footage as an accountability tool for the community i think what i'm most concerned with is transparency

Um and and the ability to make sure that that kind of video footage is made available uh to the public and the press pretty much any time you know folks want to be able to take a look at it

That's patrick eddington a civil liberties and national security policy analyst at the cato institute in washington dc as we address ways to better implement body cameras

His biggest concern is making sure the public is not restricted in their ability to record the police with their own cameras that's how we have captured so many of these incidents of violence

Against people in this country not just people of color primarily people of color unfortunately but against a lot of citizens it's been other folks out there with their their smartphones their cell

Phones recording this stuff and for me as a civil libertarian that is the number one thing that i want to ensure that we protect is the ability of folks to record in public but if we want to actually have

Body-worn cameras be of value we have to understand that they're only a tool and that the larger issues involve literally changing the nature of policing in this country

He doesn't have a bro he's not moving body cameras have potential to help so we shouldn't write them off as useless but until there are changes to how some departments use and release the footage

It's not the body cam that's holding cops accountable it's the cameras the public is pointing at the cops

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