Police officers have received their fair share of camera time lately. Over the past year, citizen deaths at the hands of law enforcement agents in Ferguson, New York City and, most recently, North Charleston have propelled the issue of police brutality to the forefront of national news. Outrage over these killings has resulted in protests and demands for change in the way that police officers perform their jobs. Though many proposals have circulated, one stands out for its simplicity and potential to prevent more deathly police-civilian encounters: equipping all police officers with body worn cameras.
Body worn cameras are still a new phenomenon, and most police departments do not use them. In a 2013 survey of police departments across the country, around 75 percent reported not placing cameras on police officers. Still, political support for them has surged, and cameras might quickly become the new norm in policing. In his new Community Policing Initiative investment package, President Obama suggests that the federal government match 50 percent of the money that states and cities spend on body worn cameras. This program would cost $75 million over a three-year span, and would greatly increase the number of body worn cameras in use by law enforcement agents. If political leaders and police departments hope to restore the public’s faith in America’s policing system, they should accept the money and outfit every patrolling officer with a camera.
The widespread use of body worn cameras would serve a range of purposes, perhaps the most important of which is to reduce police brutality. Recent studies of police forces in Rialto, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz., have found that police officers who wear body cameras are much less likely to use force or to be the subjects of civilian complaints. It is not hard to guess why; officers who wear body cameras know that any misconduct will be recorded and easily available for supervisors, and these facts deter them from employing unnecessarily violent behavior.
Body worn cameras could also enhance and streamline the process for civilians to file complaints against police officers. Typically, when a citizen lodges a complaint against a police officer, the complaint is investigated by the police department, which makes a determination about its validity. Many complaints are not easy to confirm, and police departments have little incentive to investigate thoroughly. By using camera footage to evaluate complaints, departments could easily decide whether complaints are warranted and use recordings as proof to justify any punishments that they administer. Think of it this way: If the video of Walter Scott’s murder had not surfaced, the officer responsible for Scott’s death might still be patrolling.
Granted, there are potential downsides associated with body worn cameras that deserve serious consideration. Cameras raise questions regarding the privacy of both the victim and the perpetrator. Police forces that use cameras must establish certain rules to govern when the cameras will be turned on and what kinds of footage will be available to the public. Law enforcement agencies will resist using cameras if they feel that the presence of a recording device will make victims uncomfortable or violate privacy rights. As body worn cameras become more popular as policing devices, each of these issues will be addressed in turn. With careful regulation of camera usage, however, no matter should prove problematic enough to negate the positive results that cameras could produce.
Those who consider body worn cameras to be an imposition on mostly trustworthy police officers should think about this technology in a different light. Body worn cameras can provide officers and prosecutors with invaluable evidence that they can use to convict actual criminals. Cameras capture moments that might otherwise be lost and protect officers who have been wrongfully accused of misconduct. Though the greatest benefits of using body worn cameras will be to cause police officers to self-regulate, the cameras are also valuable in their ability to ensure that justice is carried out.
If there were ever a right moment to initiate the widespread use of body worn cameras, the time is now. We have solid evidence that they are effective in reducing police officers’ use of force and civilian complaints against the police. Furthermore, the White House is offering its support, pushing Congress to provide money to departments who will integrate cameras into their operations. The rational for cameras is clear even on our own campus; in its report following the incident in which a Yale Police officer pulled his gun on a Yale student, an ad hoc institutional advisory panel recommended that the Yale Police Department require its officers to use body worn cameras while on duty.
Yale is often at the forefront of social progress. Among universities, Yale was one of the pioneers in pushing for affirmative action and attracting high-achieving low-income students to campus. We should lead on policing too by mandating that the YPD’s officers use body worn cameras.
Libby Dimenstein is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .