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Obama wants to put body cameras on 50,000 more cops

  1. The White House is asking Congress for $75 million over the next three years to help state and local police departments buy body cameras for their officers.
  2. That money would buy about 50,000 body cameras.
  3. This is one of several actions the Obama administration is taking to improve relations between local police and communities in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its aftermath.
  4. The White House also conducted a review of the many federal programs that give surplus military equipment to police, but didn't recommend major changes to those programs.

50,000 new body cameras for local police

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $75 million for a new program that would help state and local police buy and wear body cameras. According to senior administration officials, the money, spread out over three years, would put body cameras on about 50,000 more police.

It's not uncommon for the Department of Justice to help pay for equipment for state and local law enforcement to use. Administration officials said that the new body-camera program would be modeled on a program that helps police buy bulletproof vests. (Through that program, more than 1 million vests have been purchased since 1999, and it has been credited with saving the lives of a few dozen police officers.)

Why are body cameras important?

Video is often an important tool in holding powerful people accountable. In the protests that followed Brown's death in Ferguson, cell-phone videos documented aggressive behavior by police. Putting body-worn cameras on police officers would help guarantee that interactions between cops and civilians are recorded.

Michael Brown's family has made it clear that they think Darren Wilson would have been indicted for killing their son if their interaction had been recorded on tape. That's why they're now calling for states to pass Michael Brown laws" that would require police to wear body cameras.

Why police footage is so powerful

This video shows how powerful police footage can be — and how easily it can be manipulated:

Why body cameras aren't a cure-all

Brown's family is rallying around the cause of body cameras, but it's important to note that there's more to the problem of police-community relations, and aggressive police behavior, than cops not being recorded.

One of the biggest objections to requiring police to wear body cameras is the cost — which is why the White House wants Congress to step in to help reimburse local police. But there's also a question of how to set recording policies so that recordings don't violate the privacy of either police officers or civilians, but that officers also aren't allowed to the cameras on and off at will. As my colleague German Lopez has reported:

There are also some concerns about privacy and whether police should be able to record just anyone and anything they encounter, particularly in instances when an officer goes inside another person's home.

In the ACLU report, Stanley outlines the types of body camera policies that could protect people's privacy: police officers could be required to disclose to people when they're being recorded, and the recordings shouldn't be kept for more than a few weeks if the data isn't relevant to an investigation.

A big problem is these policies could, if they're tailored poorly, allow police to turn off body cameras during situations that would require the recording to solve a case. These types of poor policies would essentially put the issue back to square one, with conflicting accounts acting as the only evidence.

There have been several recent cases in which police have been recorded killing civilans — but the killings have still been deemed justifiable, because the law is relatively lenient when it comes to police using deadly force.

What about police militarization?

The White House is also releasing a review of various policies (conducted by the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security) that let local police buy or borrow surplus military equipment. These programs are the reason that local police in Ferguson used mine-resistant vehicles to roll back protesters, and that other departments have grenade launchers and military helicopters.

According to White House officials, the review found that these programs are mostly used for office supplies, not for combat equipment. Furthermore, the White House isn't recommending that the federal government stop giving military equipment to local police — the Obama administration thinks that Congress has made it clear that it wants local cops to have access to military equipment, so it's not their place to recommend otherwise. (There are bills in Congress to limit the militarization programs, but officials won't say whether they support them.)

But the report is critical of the way that the government keeps track of which police are getting what equipment, and how police are being trained to use it. So it's recommending more transparency in how the programs operate, instead of changing what kinds of equipment they give out.

Further reading

To learn more about body cameras and why many people are calling for more police to use them, read my colleague German Lopez's piece on "Michael Brown laws."

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