Body cameras could be a solution to police violence -- but former officers and experts are divided

The deaths of Alton Sterling
and Philando Castile
at the hands of police are the most recent in a string of shootings involving black citizens that have shaken the country and renewed debates over racism and police brutality.
Many organisations hail body cameras, which can record these charged encounters and provide evidence in later prosecutions, as a solution. But whether requiring police to wear them would reduce violence remains unclear.

The St. Anthony’s police department in Minnesota, which was involved in Castile’s death, does not require body cameras. Police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, do wear body cameras, but the camera belonging to the officer who shot Sterling was dislodged during the incident and yielded poor footage of the interaction.

Former police officers and criminology experts, however, disagree over whether the benefits offered by body cameras outweigh the concerns.

Eugene O’Donnell is a law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former police officer and prosecutor. In his mind, body cameras have forced police to be overly cautious, a dangerous trend that leads to crime going unpunished.

“I think it’s really changed the nature of policing, and not in a good way,” he told Business Insider. “And it’s malpractice for them to do the kind of policing now that they could have done years ago, knowing that any moment they could be held criminally accountable.”

“It’s a monumental thing now to engage people, because if anything goes wrong, you are exposed,” he added.

Tod Burke, a former police officer and prosecutor who’s now a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, acknowledges that the use of body cameras raises a host of questions — from the possibility of videos spreading on social media to uncertainty over where the cameras should be placed on the officer’s body. But overall, he thinks they’re a good idea.

“Police tend to behave better when they have the body cameras,” he told Business Insider. “I think they’re better for police-community relations — they hold the officer and the agency accountable.”

Body cameras can also protect the officer wearing one.

“My thought is still that 99% of police officers do the right thing, and video can only help police officers more than it hurts them,”
Chuck Drago, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience, told Business Insider.

Drago, who now acts a law enforcement consultant, compared the current situation in the United States to the initial backlash that occurred when many police departments began filming interrogations — although police aren’t required to do so.

“In the early days of dash cams and even before that, when we started using video in interrogation rooms, police officers were reluctant to do that because they were worried they’d get into trouble,” he said.

Burke agreed.

“From my perspective, if what I’m doing is right, I don’t mind being recorded,” he said. “The officers that don’t want to be recorded are probably on shaky ground to begin with.”

Just as opinions are mixed, research on the subject doesn’t provide a clear answer about whether body cameras are achieving their goal either. In general, data supports the use of body cameras but recommends intense deliberation before implementing them.

A 2014 study from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center suggests that if police departments want to adopt body cameras, they should proceed cautiously, with rigorous guidelines and a plan for evaluating the outcome.

According to the study, body cameras are tied to a substantial decrease in civilian complaints to police as well as a decline in the use of force by officers — though the study acknowledges other factors could be at play. Body cameras also provide helpful evidence for arrests and prosecutions.

Then again, the study reported, they might also compromise the privacy of citizens and police, not to mention require a significant commitment of resources and training to be effective. That’s not to mention the difficulty of implementing national, or at least uniform, policing policies.

Another 2014 study from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services found that using body cameras might improve police transparency and accountability but also warns police departments not to make the decision lightly. Because the technology is so new, there isn’t yet a reliable body of research on its long-term consequences.

With an even stronger caveat, O’Donnell thinks that if body cameras continue to proliferate in police departments, the profession will be irreparably damaged.

“If a young person told me they were going to be a cop today, I would tell them not to do it,” he said.

Christina Sterbenz contributed to this report.

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