Body Cameras Bring a New Perspective to Police/Civilian Encounters

Mark Roth, KLJ Staff Editor

 This past week, the hotly debated issue of the use of police force has, again, captured the nation’s attention.  An Albuquerque, New Mexico district attorney has chosen to bypass the grand jury process and, instead, present murder charges to a judge at a preliminary hearing in an event involving two police officers who shot and killed a knife-wielding homeless man in New Mexico.[1]  This decision occurred while police tactics remain under intense review nationwide following the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of another unarmed man in New York City.[2]  In both cases, grand juries declined to charge the officers, sparking intense protests and debates across the nation about the use of excessive police force.[3]  While this easily could have been another case of a police related death without enough evidence to bring formal charges, a police body camera that captured the whole confrontation gave the prosecutor enough evidence to file formal charges.[4]  At this stage, the judge still must decide if, based on the evidence, the case may proceed. But, even if the judge does allow the case to proceed, the prosecutor faces an uphill battle as the standard of what constitutes force weighs heavily in favor of police officers.  So, whether this will usher in a new era of increased prosecutions of cops as a result of wearable cameras remains to be seen.

Wearable cameras offer a number of potential benefits towards police-civilian encounters.  A study conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology based on a 12 month trial in Rialto, California found that body cameras reduced the use of police force by roughly 50 percent, while complaints against police officers fell 90 percent compared to the previous year.[5]  While additional studies are necessary, the preliminary evidence indicates that body cameras increase the accountability of both officers and civilians, as both are aware that the encounters are being taped.  Some police officers are in favor of the change as well.  Officer Richard Royce says, “I’d rather have my version of that incident captured on high-definition video in its entirety from my point of view, then to look at somebody’s grainy cellphone camera footage captured from a 100 feet away that gets cropped, edited, changed or manipulated.”[6]

Of course, the use of body cameras is not without the potential for negative consequences.  Widespread use of body cameras increases the potential for privacy infringement of individuals and presents a challenge for police departments trying to store and manage the huge amount of data that would result.[7]

All the perceived benefits need to be balanced against the potential negative consequences, but increased accountability and a drop in complaints could help to improve relationships between police officers and their communities at a time when the tension between officers and civilians is high.

Widespread use of body cameras does not appear to be on the immediate horizon just yet though.  Congress has not included President Obama’s proposed investment of $263 million into community policing in the budget, of which $75 million would go towards the cost of issuing 50,000 body cameras to police departments across the nation.[8]  This has not stopped other police departments from purchasing body cameras themselves though.[9]

While all the potential benefits and consequences of police body cameras remain to be fleshed out, the early indication is that this is a step in the right direction.  Increased use of police body cameras will provide valuable evidence that will help police departments, lawyers, judges, and juries get closer to the truth of what happens in these encounters and, hopefully, bring about positive changes to police tactics in these situations.


[1] Tribune Wire Reports, Two New Mexico Cops Charged with Murder in Shooting of Homeless Camper, Chicago Tribune (Jan. 12, 2015, 8:56 PM), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-new-mexico-cops-charged-with-murder-20150112-story.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Josh Sanburn, How Body Cams on Cops Brought a Murder Charge in New Mexico, Time (Jan. 14, 2015), http://time.com/3667089/albuquerque-police-murder-charge-body-cameras/

[5] Stan Ziv, Study Finds Body Cameras Decrease Police’s Use of Force, Newsweek (Dec. 28, 2014, 2:31 PM), http://www.newsweek.com/amidst-debate-study-finds-body-cameras-decrease-polices-use-force-295315

[6] Officers’ Body Cameras Raise Privacy Concerns, Foxnews (Mar. 15, 2014), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/03/15/officers-body-cameras-raise-privacy-concerns/

[7] Stan Ziv, Study Finds Body Cameras Decrease Police’s Use of Force, Newsweek (Dec. 28, 2014, 2:31 PM), http://www.newsweek.com/amidst-debate-study-finds-body-cameras-decrease-polices-use-force-295315

[8] Lauren Victoria Burke, Oh, and President Obama’s Request for Police Body Cameras? It Wasn’t in the Budget Congress Just Passed, The Root (Dec. 18, 2014 10:49 AM), http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2014/12/congress_skips_body_cam_funding_request.html

[9] Id. (Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the Los Angeles Police Department will purchase 7,000 body cameras for its officers . . .”).