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Following Ferguson, a body camera on every officer?

The upside of this technology far outweighs any perceived or potential downside


It’s a reasonable contention that if he had been wearing a body camera — and that video was examined by agency leadership and released responsibly to the public — Ferguson would probably have been spared the violence and unrest. (AP Image)

AP Image

In the week following the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson (Mo.), many have asked me for a comment and/or my commentary on the matter. My reply has generally been, “What, precisely, might that comment be? We know very little detail regarding the incident itself, so any ‘analysis’ on my part would be tantamount to irresponsible speculation. Further, analysis of the rioting and looting (and police response to same) would be redundant — we’ve got reams of columns on crowd control tactics and strategies.”

One thing, however, merits mention in this space. It’s directly related to the first thought that came to my mind when news of this tragedy broke: “Man, I hope that officer was wearing a body camera.”

By now, we can correctly surmise that he was not, and it’s a reasonable contention that if he had been wearing a body camera — and that video was examined by agency leadership and released responsibly to the public — Ferguson would probably have been spared the violence and unrest.

Countering Arguments Against
It has been my belief for some time that on-officer cameras will one day be mandatory, standard equipment for the vast majority of departments in the United States. My argument has been that the upside of this technology far outweighs any perceived or potential downside.

1. Officers’ fears about “Big Brother” are crushed by good, sound policy collaboratively created by all stakeholders — administrators, police unions, civil rights groups, local lawmakers, and others. Citizens’ fears about Fourth Amendment issues — for victims, witnesses, and other uninvolved persons — are similarly crushed by that same policy.

2. Concerns over budgeting for the investment in new gear (and training for same) are quelled by the statistical data suggesting that the outlay in cash is far less than the cost of settling frivolous (and baseless) lawsuits over alleged officer misconduct when no such misconduct occurred.

3. Any argument alleging that “the technology just isn’t there yet” is flat out false. Five years ago, such a statement may have held some water, but companies like TASER International, Digital Ally, L-3 Mobile Vision, and VIEVU now offer rugged, patrol-ready products with high-definition recording capabilities in light, wearable form factors.

Mounting Political Pressure
An online petition recently sprang to life on the website for the Obama White House. The “Mike Brown Law” — which would require “all state, county, and local police to wear a camera” — was proposed in the online citizen petition just yesterday, and today the number of signatures eclipsed the 500,000 mark.

I don’t believe that body-worn cameras should be mandated by law, but I know that one day in the not-too-distant future, these devices will be mandatory, standard equipment for all but a few police agencies. If budgets allowed, most — if not all — agencies would make a move to officer-worn cameras with proper processes in place to protect the officer. But not all agencies have available budgets.

I understand why some lawmakers may decide to pounce on this event in Ferguson and propose legislation (they are called “lawmakers” after all). Political pressure from the electorate is a real thing. Such pressure creates an exigency for the elected official — who wants to stay elected! — to “do something” even if for the sake of being perceived later to have “done something” (and even if it’s an ill-advised something).

My feeling is that there will be increasing pressure (exponentially increasing in a place like Missouri, where tensions fester close to home) for such laws. Perhaps in some cases, laws will eventually be passed. But my prediction is that in most other places, body-worn cameras will be adopted by forward-looking agencies long before any law takes effect.

I connected with TASER International CEO Rick Smith as I was writing this piece today. He said, “We believe the concept of using wearable cameras to provide a foundation of transparency has hit a tipping point.”

Smith continued, “The intense emotions that arise from uncertainty and diametrically opposed conjecture about what did or did not happen in life and death encounters can tear communities apart. We believe wearable technology — like body-worn cameras — is the future for communities to relate to those entrusted to protect them. We’ve already seen this transformation in agencies on the leading edge of this technology wave, and we look forward to making this capability available to every officer who puts their life and honor on the line every day to do a dangerous job.”

Rick Smith routinely “nails it” on these matters, and he did so again today. I completely concur.

Embracing the Future, One Agency at a Time
Policing is not a one-size-fits-all profession because in reality, no two agencies are alike.

Some agencies have better relations with the citizens they protect, and consequently don’t have the same chasm of trust to repair. They may be able to take more time to implement.

Some agencies have more adversarial relationships with their unions, and consequently may have a harder time hammering out the abovementioned “collaboratively created” policy.

Ultimately, the point is this. On-officer cameras are an inevitable element of the future of law enforcement. They’re here, and they’re not going away. If you haven’t yet begun to embrace — and by that I mean being somewhere in the process of testing, evaluating, selecting, writing policy, budgeting, purchasing, training, and deploying — these cameras, start now.

In Ferguson, a device costing less than a thousand dollars (less than $400 dollars in many cases) could have saved many thousands of dollars in damage and untold (and uncountable) damage to this police department’s relationship with its citizens. There have been myriad other cases of violence following an officer-involved shooting that could have been prevented by responsibly sharing the video from the event.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.