Our country is now having a much-needed conversation about racial profiling, constitutional policing, and how to hold officers accountable for the violation of rights, all stemming from a number of recent high-profile cases where law enforcement used excessive force that resulted in the death of a suspect.
These systemic problems seem overwhelming, but one concrete and important step should be implemented as soon as possible: body worn cameras for officers.
Body-worn cameras are audio-visual devices worn on the lapel, chest, or glasses. There is no definitive list of the agencies using these cameras, but a recent report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) listed their use by large and small police departments across the country. In Florida, over 20 localities are already using them or, as in Miami-Dade County, considering doing so. President Obama has asked Congress to fund 50,000 police cameras for local departments. Florida agencies should avail themselves of those funds, if funds become available.
Because body worn cameras are relatively new, there are few studies available reflecting their effectiveness, but those that exist are overwhelmingly positive. Studies in Rialto, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz., found huge reductions in the use of force overall and even larger reductions in the number of citizen complaints. Rialto saw a 60 percent reduction in the use of force, and an 88 percent reduction in excessive force complaints. Mesa found that officers without cameras had three times as many complaints as officers with them.
These promising numbers indicate that officers may not only be choosing to use force less often, but that the public may be acting on its best behavior once it realizes it is being recorded. Several departments have reported to PERF that the cameras provide an overall calming effective on everyone involved — not just officers.
There are even more benefits of body-worn cameras for officers. More often than not, camera footage is used to exonerate officers when complaints are filed. However, for all their promise, there are two issues that must be addressed before cameras get up and rolling.
▪ First, departments must have written, publicly available policies governing the use of cameras, especially addressing when they must be turned on.
Cameras should be on when police are on the job and interacting with the public, subject to reasonable and explicitly acknowledged exceptions, which could include interacting with a confidential informant or a victim who declines to give an interview on film. This isn’t just an ACLU recommendation — it is the practice in many police departments around the country and even several here in Florida.
Some have proposed that cameras should be turned on and off solely at the officer’s discretion. If this is how cameras will be implemented, they will not be an oversight mechanism and instead just an evidence-gathering tool.
▪ Second, departments need to clarify that all the footage they collect through these new cameras may only be used for official law enforcement purposes and promptly deleted if an incident hasn’t been flagged due to a citizen complaint or use in prosecution. The footage recorded by these cameras should not sit indefinitely in storage where it could be subject improper access, leaks or hacking.
These recommendations should not be controversial. They are emerging as best practices across the country.
Some argue that body cameras are not the answer because recent grand juries have failed to indict officers who have been videotaped abusing or even killing suspects. While the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner both resulted in no indictment, allowing the public to witness a police interaction with its own eyes in the Garner case made a huge impact in public opinion.
To be sure, police cameras are not a panacea that will solve all police-community tensions, and they cannot ensure accountability without many other pieces of the justice system operating correctly.
But what they can do is offer an unbiased view of the facts, something that we should not leave unresolved when the solution is so simple.
Michelle Richardson is director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.