Shortly after protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting death of an unarmed, black 18-year-old by a white police officer, the phones at companies that manufacture body cameras started ringing non-stop.
At Seattle-based VIEVU, which has sold the cameras to more than 4,000 law enforcement agencies, CEO Steve Ward says requests for test units are up 70% since the Ferguson protests, and September was the highest sales month in the company’s history. “We’re doubling our sales force to keep up,” Ward said.
Taser International, known for its stun guns, has also been flooded with inquiries for body cameras. “Not only did police recognize, ‘I wish they would’ve had a video,’ but now families and all these activists are saying, ‘I wish they would’ve had a video,’ ” said Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle.
The rush to outfit officers with cameras is to avoid controversies, such as the one surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, by documenting whether police acted in self-defense or overreacted.
Police have not yet come to grips with privacy questions that arise when cameras go into homes or record sensitive conversations.
Police agencies are implementing policies on the fly over when cameras must be turned on and off, how to store the videos and how to comply with public records laws.
“They’re diving headfirst into a pool without checking if there’s water,” said John Rivera, president of the 32,000-member Florida Police Benevolent Association.
Several groups, including the Police Executive Research Forum and International Association of Chiefs of Police, have published guidelines for using body cameras. A handful of agencies allow their officers to be tested by universities to gauge the impact of the cameras.
Despite that progress, the vast differences in state public records laws and a likely barrage of lawsuits to release or protect videos taken by police suggest the road toward all police wearing body cameras will be a bumpy one.
Jay Stanley, a senior analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union who studied body cameras and published recommendations for agencies, said the ACLU generally supports body cameras because they provide an unprecedented layer of transparency to everyday police work. But he worries about thousands of agencies — working with little federal or state guidance — fumbling along with their own experiments in such a sensitive field.
“You have police departments that are really taking the time to think through their policy carefully, consulting widely with community groups, civil liberty groups, privacy groups, the public, police unions,” he said. “And then there are departments that are just slapping them on their officers without thinking about it at all.”
The debate over body cameras can be seen in South Florida, where agencies are taking different approaches to the technology.
In Miami-Dade County, the county commission recently approved $1 million to purchase 500 cameras — enough for roughly half of its force. Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he started exploring body cameras two years ago because of the promise they could minimize encounters that result in violence or death.
He gives the example of the 1980 Miami riots that started after four white police officers were acquitted of manslaughter in the death of a black man named Arthur McDuffie. That sparked three days of riots that killed 18 people and caused over $100 million in damage.
Gimenez, who responded to those riots as a paramedic, said body cameras could have helped in three ways.
If video captured the officers unjustly beating McDuffie with flashlights, as one witness claimed, they may have been found guilty, satisfying the community. Had video shown the officers were justified in their actions, residents of Miami may have accepted the result and avoided a riot. Or, the fact the officers were wearing body cameras could have changed their behavior, or McDuffie’s, and prevented the fatal encounter.
“There is always going to be a difference of opinion between some witnesses and police departments,” Gimenez said. “Those points of contention can be eliminated with cameras on our body.”
Police in Miami aren’t so sure.
Miami Assistant Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes is testing 18 body cameras in the department’s motorcycle unit and will increase that to 50 this month. He lists a series of questions over whether to expand the program department-wide.
What happens when citizens say they do not want their conversation recorded? After responding to a routine burglary, can anyone request the video that might show in detail the interior of a person’s home? Will an officer who forgets to turn on the camera in a sudden burst of gunfire be accused of intentionally hiding what happened?
How much will it cost to store all that video? How much time will officers be off the street to catalog and review those videos?
“I don’t need a sergeant sitting in an office for four hours looking at footage of what happened yesterday,” Llanes said. “I need him on the street today.”
Stanley of the ACLU worries about the line between police releasing or restricting too many videos, as in San Diego, where police have refused to release videos of recent shootings.
“We want to ensure that video footage that’s not of public importance isn’t released to YouTube for laughs, and that video that is of public importance is available to the public to be scrutinized,” Stanley said.
The few studies that have tested body cameras show improvements for departments.
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SOURCE: USA Today – Alan Gomez