By: Alex Wilson
After a series of high-profile officer involved shootings across the country, focus was drawn to police accountability. Following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the use of body-worn video cameras by law enforcement officers became a popular solution to this issue as unlike the previously utilized in-car recording systems, the camera follows the officer and sees what the officer does. Opponents to this include officers who feel that the required use of such devices would cause them to dangerously second guess themselves in critical situations and members of the general populus who claim that there is nothing to stop officers from simply turning the devices off. Both are valid concerns worthy of serious addressment.
The ideal system for recording police interactions are at least two separate recording systems: both the in-car system and the body-worn system. The vehicle system would ideally include a wide-angle camera facing in all four directions, as well as an audio recorder worn on the officer. Such systems can be manually activated or activated simultaneously along with emergency lights. This is an effective method since many officer involved shootings occur after a traffic stop or call requiring an emergency response. Every time one of those two occurs, the camera automatically starts rolling which decreases the workload of the officer and subsequently improves officer safety in dangerous situations. However, this can fail and it can be turned off.
The body-worn system must be activated by the officer. This has already proven to be highly effective in protecting both officer and public accountability. When the camera doesn’t activate for one reason or another, or something is blocking the view of the camera, the public must realize that many of the situation that officers face unfold very quickly and are extraordinarily stressful. The first priority in any dangerous situation should be ensuring the safety of both the public and the officer. For that reason, if the camera fails to activate, the reason for that should be thoroughly investigated, but should not be sole grounds for claiming guilt of the officer without sufficient evidence that the device was deactivated with mal intentions. This is especially true for contacts that do not begin as enforcement contacts, but rather a casual conversation or public assist which transpires into an enforcement contact.
When such a contact escalates into something more, for safety reasons, activating the camera is not generally the top priority, especially if lives are at risk. Although the vast majority of the time there is something recording, as body cameras come to be utilized by more agencies, it is important for those agencies to continue taking proactive community-based and trust-building action with the community. Even though the technology exists, it is not foolproof and by building trust with communities and setting a standard of overall transparency within departments, investigators and entire communities will be able to better address major incidents with the evidence that they have to work with. Ideally, there will always be visual evidence of such incidents and this may become more of reality as technology progresses into the future and improvements come to light.