Why No Camera?

It’s not always easy to get the public to adopt extant technology into their mindset, but one piece of equipment appears to be proving far easier to embrace than others: cameras.  This may be a result of a television mentality, where people expect, maybe demand, to see evidence of what a witness claims, or maybe the pervasiveness of images has taken its toll.

A company that makes police cameras, Brickhouse Security, has conducted a survey with some interesting results.  While the survey of 500 people may be inherently suspect based on its backer, it nonetheless is worthy of note:

  • 72 percent of people polled think police should be required to wear cameras
  • Of the over 500 American polled, 360 people thought police body cameras should be turned on whenever on duty and 152 thought they should be turned on during interactions with civilians
  • 75 percent of people polled would think an officer is hiding something if the camera is not activated
  • 62 percent of people polled said, if they were a cop, they would buy a body camera for themselves, even if they were not required
  • 83 percent of people polled don’t think body cams are an invasion of privacy
  • 79 percent of people polled think police body cameras will reduce actual use of excessive force; while 81 percent believe it will also reduce accusations

This conforms with the experience in Rialto, California:

So it is in Rialto, Calif., where an entire police force is wearing so-called body-mounted cameras, no bigger than pagers, that record everything that transpires between officers and citizens. In the first year after the cameras’ introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%.

What makes this experience particularly notable is that it appears to have served interests for all involved.  Even more notable is that the 60% drop in use of force by police, knowing that someone is watching, didn’t create any increase in threat of harm to officers or impair their ability to do their job.  In other words, they don’t have to beat people for the hell of it for their own safety or others’.  Imagine.

The cameras worn in Rialto, made by the dreaded Taser International, included an interesting feature.

A convenient feature of the camera is its “pre-event video buffer,” which continuously records and holds the most recent 30 seconds of video when the camera is off. In this way, the initial activity that prompts the officer to turn on the camera is more likely to be captured automatically, too.

By cycling this 30 second recording, these cameras were able to capture the precipitating event that everyone complains is lost when the police turn on their camera.  At the same time, they still require the cameras to be turned on, the human foible that can’t be ignored.

Much as the public has no problem with police body cams being a “violation of their privacy,” a bizarre and spurious claim often raised in opposition to big brother watching how its minions do their job, Police Chief William Farrar in Rialto was able to overcome resistance:

But when Mr. Farrar told his uniformed patrol officers of his plans to introduce the new, wearable video cameras, “it wasn’t the easiest sell,” he said, especially to some older officers who initially were “questioning why ‘big brother’ should see everything they do.”

He said he reminded them that civilians could use their cellphones to record interactions, “so instead of relying on somebody else’s partial picture of what occurred, why not have your own?” he asked. “In this way, you have the real one.”

Of course, the more direct answer is that what you do while serving in an official capacity doesn’t invoke personal privacy, but is an official act subject to public scrutiny where any personal privacy rights are waived by the choice to put on a shield and deposit a government paycheck.  But if it goes down easier by pointing out that it’s to the benefit of cops as well as the public to wear a body cam, that’s fine too.

As already noted, cameras are no panacea. For the moment, there remain a multitude of issues, some involving malfeasance and some as banal as the fact that the batteries won’t last a full tour.  More sophisticated concerns bear upon camera angles which distort the impression of what it shown, knowing only too well that a video is worth 10,000 words, and it’s very hard to contend that what a jury sees on the screen isn’t what actually happened.

Yet, flaws aside, the experience in Rialto showing how cameras have reduced use of force by police where nothing else has shown much success is huge.  And as this survey seems to indicate, the public is coming to expect, if not demand, cameras of the cops to bolster their otherwise incomprehensible jargon.

Also buried in the survey is a significant question:

Do you think police officers wearing body cameras will help prevent the use of excessive force by the police?

The response was 78.9% affirmative, with 21.1% negative, with a response of 526 people and no one skipping the question.  What makes this interesting is the question is a lot like “when did you stop beating your wife,” assuming as undisputed fact that police currently engage in the use of excessive force.

While one might hope that police would restrain their wanton use of force because it’s disgraceful and fundamentally wrong, if wearing body cams does the trick at least to some extent, that’s a whole lot of people who make it home alive and unbeaten from an interaction with police.  Not all, of course, but far more than now.  This is something we can all live with.


One thought on “Why No Camera?

  1. LTMG

    I wonder if in the city of Rialto the number and severity of injuries to police officers also fell. If so, then there could be a substantial savings to the city in reduced insurance premiums for their police officers. Would these potential cost savings more than pay for the cost of the cameras and their maintenance? Hard to predict, but the idea is interesting to consider.

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