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Body Cameras Put Police in the Spotlight

3 Aug 2015 by Teresa Meek

As the use of police body cameras spreads, police departments are developing rules for using the technology and struggling to deal with public outrage when video clips go viral.

Three recent cases illustrate the power of video — whether shot by police cameras or bystanders — in shaping public opinion and holding police accountable.

In April, an unarmed black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, was gunned down as he ran from a police officer. Video footage, in this case shot by a bystander, contradicted a police report saying that the suspect had grabbed the officer’s Taser and was trying to use it against him. After the video went public, the officer was charged with murder.

That same month in Baltimore, civilian videos of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries while in police custody, led to rioting and the indictment of six police officers.

In July, video from a University of Cincinnati police officer’s own body camera led to a charge of murder. The officer had shot a man at a traffic stop after asking him to unbuckle his seat belt.

Body cams on the rise

Though most police departments don’t have them yet, body cams are spreading fast. New York, San Diego, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia all have pilot programs, and Los Angeles recently decided to equip all patrol officers with the cameras, though the program hasn’t been implemented yet.

Soon there will be more. The Justice Department is spending $20 million to provide dozens of local departments with the devices.

New York is getting ready to expand its pilot program, but before it does, a new report by the Office of the Inspector General suggests some changes to its body camera policy.

The report, released the day after the University of Cincinnati officer was charged, recommends having officers turn on the cameras more frequently when interacting with suspects and requiring the department to store video for at least 18 months.

It also says that if police do not turn on the cameras when required, it should be considered a violation of department policy, though it doesn’t specify punishment.

The report says body cameras have the potential to improve policing, and promote transparency and accountability in law enforcement. But viral videos also have the effect of making police shootings seem routine, when in fact they are rare.

Use of the technology is new, and the one study that has been done so far leads to more questions than answers.

In the Rialto, California, study, officers wearing cameras used force 50% less, but the study was small, and officers knew their police chief supported the cameras. No one knows whether the cameras caused police to behave better, or whether officers’ verbal warnings about them resulted in more restrained behavior from suspects.

View through the police lens

Though video snippets have a powerful effect on public perception, they don’t always tell the whole story behind an incident.

In a California case, for example, video that showed an officer slamming a suspect’s head against the top of a car failed to show the suspect grabbing the officer’s groin below the camera.

Footage that looks to civilians like cut-and-dried evidence of police misconduct can be murkier to officers who have dealt with such situations.

Video that shows a South Carolina highway patrol officer firing at a man after he was stopped for not wearing a seatbelt and asked to retrieve his driver’s license led to felony charges against the officer, who also lost his job, and an eventual $300,000 settlement from the state.

It looks like a clear case of justice served. But when Adam Plantinga, a former San Francisco police sergeant and the author of a book about policing, viewed the video, he had a different reaction.

"I felt my stomach tense up because I've seen…that kind of quick movement before, where people have emerged with a weapon," Plantinga told NPR.

The jury’s still out on whether body cams will live up to their promise of improving the behavior of police and suspects. But the spotlight that the cameras have thrown on police will not go away, and in the future, departments will have to incorporate decisions about the technology into all aspects of policing.

See the full report released last week detailing why body cameras are important by the New York Police Department’s Office of the Inspector General.