Politics & Policy

In Ferguson's Aftermath, Will Police Adopt Body Cameras?


A Los Angeles Police officer wearing an on-body camera

Photograph by Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

A Los Angeles Police officer wearing an on-body camera

The photographs and videos from Ferguson, Mo., over the past few days have been striking. Equally remarkable is what’s missing following the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown: footage of the incident captured by the police officer who shot him. At a time when it seems everything is recorded, no camera appears to have been pointed in the direction of the fatal incident.

Video evidence of violent encounters between police and civilians have been a hot-button issue since the days of Rodney King. Just in the past several weeks in New York, cellphone cameras have captured a man saying he couldn’t breathe as a police officer held him in a deadly chokehold and the police dragging an unclothed woman out of her apartment. While the violent videos are the ones that gain attention, there’s also evidence that the presence of cameras reduces the chance that things will get out of control in the first place. So why not have law enforcement wear cameras all the time?

That’s a question that comes up more and more. A federal judge ordered New York to begin using cameras last year, as part of her ruling against the city’s stop-and-frisk tactics—an idea the city immediately resisted. (Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg Businessweek’s parent company, was the mayor of New York at the time.) Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, this week proposed a pilot project to outfit officers with body cameras. She said it would cost $450 to $900 per camera. The pilot project, which would cover officers in 15 percent of the city’s police force, would come out to $5 million.

James compares that with the $152 million the city paid last year in court judgments and settlements related to police misconduct. While no technical solution would eliminate misconduct completely, cameras do seem as if they could help reduce the legal bill. A study published last April showed that complaints against police dropped 88 percent in Rialto, Calif., after that city began randomly assigning officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, use-of-force incidents dropped 59 percent.

Other cities are coming around. Taser International (TASR), which makes the most widely used police body cameras, increased its bookings for its video unit almost twofold last quarter, signing deals with the police departments of Winston-Salem, N.C., Spartanburg County, S.C., and San Diego. The company provides both hardware and data services related to the cameras and now works with 20 major cities in one capacity or another.

Groups that would normally be skeptical of authorities videotaping everything support the idea of camera-equipped cops. The American Civil Liberties Union published a white paper last year supporting the use of the cameras. “Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened,” says Jay Stanley, the author of the ACLU’s paper, referring to the Ferguson shooting.

The ACLU’s support comes with certain caveats. Stanley says the cameras would ideally record constantly, so that an officer couldn’t turn it off to protect himself. Officers should also be required to tell people about the recording, especially once they’re inside private homes, and footage should be erased after a set period of time in the absence of a specific incident needing investigation.

Taser Chief Executive Patrick Smith warns that can be complicated. “It’s not as simple as handing out cameras and sending officers on their way,” he told investors recently. “There are policies that must be written and implemented, IT departments to work with, public relations messaging to be crafted by cities.”

As Taser expands internationally, it is learning how sensitive police footage is. International clients insist that the servers holding footage from their police departments are located outside the U.S.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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