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Police body cameras, explained

Although tensions remain high in Milwaukee following the police shooting of Sylville Smith, officials announced on Monday that they won't release the body camera video of the shooting.

In justifying this, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel exemplified one of the remaining issues surrounding body cameras even as more police departments move to adopt these tools for accountability.

Releasing the video earlier "would compromise the integrity of the investigation," Schimel said. "It is sometimes necessary to confront witnesses with information they didn't know or they didn't know we know. I cannot have witness statements colored or tainted by what they are seeing from other sources."

This is just one example of the broader debate about how effective these body cameras are in real police settings.

It's just not as easy as simply giving every police officer a camera; there's questions about how they should be used, too. Should the cameras always be on, even when officers talk to confidential sources or go into private spaces, like a person's home? Is it realistic to always expect a cop to turn on the camera right before a dangerous, quickly developing situation? And if the cameras do record a shooting or other use of force, who gets to release the footage and when?

To this day, there's still very little research tackling these questions — in large part because there's not even data showing how many police departments have adopted body cameras and how the devices are used.

Despite these concerns, there is a growing movement in favor of adopting body cameras, with the Obama administration and more and more police departments and local governments embracing the technology. And recent cases have given the push for body cameras a lot more credibility.

Body cameras are meant to hold police accountable

body camera

A body camera. (Win McNamee/Getty Images News)

Body cameras are small devices, usually attached to the head or upper body of a police officer and used to record their day-to-day work. Some cameras have enough battery life for a couple of hours of recording, while others can last as long as 12 hours. The cameras generally run between $200 and $1,000.

The main argument for body cameras is that they could hold police accountable for their actions. This has already proven true in several cases, such as the 2015 police shooting of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, in which officers were caught lying about the shooting — saying that their lives were in danger when they really weren't. In the past, we could have been left with nothing but the police officers' word to go on.

At the same time, the cameras could protect cops falsely accused of wrongdoing. In a 2014 case in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, a woman claimed that an officer had sexually assaulted her during a drunk driving stop. It turned out nothing of the sort happened — and the video proved it.

The cameras "have the potential to be a win-win situation," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "A lot of departments are finding that for every time they're used to record an abusive officer, there are other times where they save an officer from a false accusation of abuse or unprofessional behavior."

Stanley argued the devices could pay for themselves. For one, the recordings could be used to fight off false charges that could lead to costly lawsuits or court settlements. The cameras could also encourage police, who would know their actions are being recorded, to behave better.

In New York City, a 2014 report from the city's public advocate found that outfitting the entire police department with body cameras would cost around $33 million. But in 2013, the city paid $152 million as a result of claims of police misconduct. If body cameras could reduce those claims by just one-fifth, the devices would pay for themselves.

Ed Mullins, a sergeant in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and president of the NYPD sergeants union, is skeptical about body cameras, but he agreed the devices could benefit police and local governments in some ways. "The city settles lawsuits because it's cheaper" than taking them to trial, he said. "There's a value there."

The major question is how body cameras could be used to hold cops accountable.

Who maintains and releases the footage — the police, who may have an interest in not showing the video, or someone else, like prosecutors or an independent agency? And who is going to pay for storing all of that evidence, which will need to go on a server somewhere?

Should the video go out to the public right away? This could be a big problem for investigators: They often gauge the credibility of witnesses by using other evidence and testimony to verify what witnesses say. If witnesses can fact-check their own testimony with video footage, they could end up masking their dishonesty more easily — possibly skewing an investigation.

Figuring out these types of issues — who oversees the video, and when it's released — will likely come slowly in the next few years, as more police departments adopt body cameras. But until then, they're open questions.

Body cameras may help reduce use of force

British police body camera

A UK police officer shows off his body camera. (Yui Mok/WPA Pool via Getty Images)

Since so few police departments have adopted the devices up to this point, the evidence surrounding body cameras is still hazy. But some of the early results are promising.

In a 2014 report for the Department of Justice, Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, reviewed the slim evidence on body cameras and the experiences of police departments around the world. White found some major benefits to the devices, but he also outlined a few lingering unanswered questions and concerns.

Most promisingly, the report found what seems to be a big early success in Rialto, California. Since 2012, all Rialto cops must wear body cameras. In the first year of the program, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent and citizen complaints declined by 88 percent.

body cam results Rialto California

Similar findings applied to other cities with body cameras. In multiple places, there were drops in citizen complaints. In the Scottish city of Aberdeen, there were fewer assaults on officers. And anecdotal evidence suggested a civilizing effect in Phoenix.

The problem, the report noted, is the studies were so bare in their findings that it's unclear how body cameras led to the decreases in bad behavior. Did citizens behave better because they were on camera? Did cops? A mix of both? The studies don't provide a full answer for the cause and effect.

The research also indicated that body cameras assist in the resolution of citizen complaints against police, and may reduce the likelihood of false complaints against police. In the UK studies, body cameras appeared to reduce officers' paperwork, improve cops' ability to determine whether a crime occurred, and increase the chances of a case ending in a guilty plea instead of a criminal trial.

police body camera

A body camera on a UK police officer. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

One 2014 study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology after White's report, tested body cameras in a randomized controlled trial with Rialto police. After police began wearing body cameras, reported use-of-force incidents dropped by more than half. But some of this drop occurred during shifts in which officers didn't wear cameras; that could indicate body cameras caused a change in norms — and therefore use of force — across the department, or it could mean there was some other variable unaccounted for in the study that caused use-of-force incidents to decline.

In a separate 2014 report by the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, several police chiefs heralded the use of body cameras as a means to collect evidence.

"Oftentimes, we know that the suspect is repeatedly abusing the victim, but either the victim refuses to press charges, or there is simply not enough evidence to go to trial," Daytona Beach Police Chief Michael Chitwood told the COPS Office, which helps train and fund local police departments. "The footage shows first-hand the victim's injuries, demeanor, and immediate reactions. … This means that we can have enough evidence to move forward with the case, even if the victim ultimately declines to prosecute."

Based on White's review of the evidence and the other research, it's also unclear whether body cameras exacerbate citizens' concerns about privacy and whether recording citizens in traumatic situations can worsen the trauma of such an event.

The research also didn't resolve concerns that body cameras could expose officers to "unsolicited fishing expeditions by supervisors," which could open cops to punishment simply for making a dirty joke while a camera is recording. It also failed to establish just how much of an effect body cameras have on litigation against police.

"Independent research on body-worn camera technology is urgently needed," White wrote. "Most of the claims made by advocates and critics of the technology remain untested."

There are real privacy concerns about allowing police to record everyone at all times

Skeptics and supporters of body cameras acknowledge they could benefit both police and the public, but skeptics are particularly concerned that the policies could be set up in a way that violates the privacy of the public and police officers.

Mullins, for one, said he's worried that recordings from body cameras could harm an officer's day-to-day work. A confidential informant, for example, could be reluctant to talk to a cop who's wearing a body camera. That could make it harder for police to track down a suspect or do other regular work in the line of duty.

police body cameras

Denver police demonstrate body cameras to media. (Craig Walker/Denver Post via Getty Images)

Another big concern for cops like Mullins is that the cameras could be used to go after police for petty or political problems. For example, an officer could end up getting in trouble for a dirty joke with his partner that was caught on camera. "Police sense of humor is different from what the general public expects," Mullins said. "Do I get chastised for making jokes? Things like that need to be clear, because, in any workplace, people joke."

Similar concerns apply for the broader public. A lot of people could take issue with having their every move recorded simply because a police officer is around, even in a public setting. The privacy concerns are further exacerbated if an officer comes into a person's home, where the recording could present a clear violation of someone's right to privacy on private property.

There's also concern the cameras could be used to aid prosecutions of civilians. Under current policy, the NYPD generally avoids charging anyone who knowingly submits a false claim against a police officer, because it could lead to a chilling effect among people who have legitimate complaints. But if cameras empower the public to go after police, Mullins argued it's only fair that the devices are also used as evidence to prosecute people who make false charges against police.

"When we're wrong, we pay the penalty," Mullins said. "What happens when you're wrong? It's a question of fairness."

Stanley, of the ACLU, acknowledged some of the privacy concerns in a 2013 report for the ACLU. His proposed rules would require a police officer to disclose to people that they're being recorded, provide some leniency for when a cop needs to record, limit public access to footage when it's directly pertinent to a personal or public issue with police, and prevent footage, particularly recordings impertinent to an investigation, from being held for long periods of time. Stanley also added that some sort of independent body should be able to verify the policies are being enforced correctly.

"We don't want to see video not of any importance to the public being circulated for yuks among police officers or posted on YouTube," Stanley said. "At the same time, video that is of public importance should be released."

Technological limits could hold down body cameras

police body camera Ferguson

A police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, outfitted with a body camera. (Aaron Bernstein/Getty Images News)

Beyond the concerns about policy, there are technological limits that could strain the implementation of body cameras and the effect they have on holding police accountable.

The major concern is battery life. With the battery of some cameras lasting as little as two hours, it's possible that the cameras may not always be usable when police officers need them most. Or to conserve battery life, police might need to charge the cameras in their cars and only turn them on right before they confront a suspect or take some other action. That may not always be feasible in emergency situations.

Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security, a company that makes body cameras, said it's a concern he hears from police officers around the country. "They have this fear that if they've been mandated to wear a camera and then for some reason they're unable to push the button or forget to push the button, the absence of video evidence will be used as evidence against them that they did something wrong," he said.

Based on some polls, police officers' concerns have some merit. In a survey of 526 people conducted by Morris's company, nearly 75 percent of respondents said they would think an officer is hiding something if an outfitted body camera isn't activated.

Stanley, of the ACLU, said this problem could be alleviated by providing police officers with extra batteries. While a problem for now, he said it's also one that likely won't exist once the technology improves. Until then, officers will just need to be somewhat careful with their battery use.

"There's plenty of battery to record most of the serious incidents that any officer is likely to encounter in any shift," Stanley said, "but not necessarily enough to record all of every shift."

The public strongly supports body cameras, but some police officers are skeptical

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles

Ferguson's local government, led by Mayor James Knowles, vowed to look into body cameras for its police force after the Michael Brown shooting. (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)

Despite the issues, the public is strongly behind police wearing body cameras.

The BrickHouse Security survey found that more than 72 percent of respondents support body cameras, which holds up with other polls around the country.

The respondents to BrickHouse's survey, however, were mixed in how the cameras should be used and turned on. Fewer than half of respondents said the cameras should always be on as long as the officer is on duty. Nearly 29 percent said the cameras should only be on when an officer is interacting with a civilian, and roughly 5 percent said the cameras should be activated at the officer's discretion. The remaining respondents said officers shouldn't be allowed to wear body cameras.

Generally, police departments are more skeptical of body cameras — but those concerns seem to ease over time as they see the potential benefits. For example, a 2002 survey of police officers suggested as many as 93 percent of misconduct investigations with dashboard camera evidence exonerated officers. (The high exoneration rate is based on officers' self-reports, so it could be an overestimate.) Similar results may be possible with body cameras.

officer exonerations dashcams

"The departments that I've researched that implemented cameras had an anti-camera atmosphere," said Mullins, of the NYPD. "That subsequently changed over a period of time when officers recognized they were being cleared of allegations that weren't true."

Morris, of BrickHouse Security, said he's sold "thousands" of body cameras to police officers, who are buying them voluntarily with their own money. "Everyone's got a friend on the force who has been accused of saying something inappropriate, touching someone inappropriately, or doing something inappropriate," he said. Police officers "can all identify with it, and they want to avoid it."