What actually is being recorded by the body-worn cameras that many police now use?
I recently watched the video of the University of Cincinnati’s officer-involved shooting of Samuel DuBose, which played a role in the officer’s indictment. The incident was one of many over the past year that triggered commentary about how such cameras affect police actions and decision-making.
But discussions about how such cameras will affect the actions and decisions of the citizens the police come into contact with are still hard to find.
The city government of Madison, Wis. recently created a panel of citizens to examine whether or not officers in our city should be equipped with body cameras. The panel is a welcome step: this is a complicated issue, money is tight, and the answers are not always obvious.
I was recently part of a group of Madison police officers providing feedback to the panel on how we felt wearing body cameras may impact our work.
First and foremost, most of the officers agreed we assume we are being recorded at all times while in public—and given the ubiquitous cell phone, we often are. For the most part, we agreed a body camera would not change our actions or decisions.
But many of us worried about the other half of our interactions. What will happen to the footage we record—considering that it will be subject to open-records requests?
This is one of several issues posed by police body-worn cameras that I believe deserve a more thorough discussion.
The camera is not recording me (as police officer); it’s recording you. The footage captured will not be like an episode of COPS. You will likely not get multiple views, and if there is any action, you may get dizzy watching it. But video quality aside, what really matters is this: police enter the homes of vulnerable people every day. We go into your homes and the homes of your loved ones. We take reports of sexual assaults that would give some nightmares. We see people in the throes of mental health crises, people in all states of disrobement, and we see the results of terrible violence.
Will all of this be recorded? Who will get to watch it?
Policies and redaction aside, we live in a digital world that is constantly under attack from hackers. Just this year, my department was subjected to a computerized attack. I do not think the hacker, who was arrested somewhere in Arizona, captured any data. It is unlikely anyone would care to hack the Madison Police Department to get body camera video, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Another issue involves citizens talking to police. As I mentioned in an earlier column for The Crime Report, we see people in vulnerable situations and talk to them about sensitive issues. How might a body camera change the victim’s description of a forcible rape? Will that victim even want to talk to me?
How can we win the trust of a person in the midst of a mental health crisis who is already paranoid about police surveilling them, and a government “infiltrated by Nazis/aliens/Communists/etc.” ?
What about citizens in vulnerable areas who witness a crime? They are often already scared to talk to us for fear of retaliation, but we would not be able to solve many crimes without them.
Some might say we should just turn the camera off when talking to victims. But as most officers know, sometimes a “victim” is or becomes a suspect. Situations can change in the blink of an eye and often things are not as they first seem. We do our work on the street, and no situation on the street is ever so safe and controlled as to be entirely predictable. Not to mention the attorneys will have some thoughts on missing footage.
So do the cameras always stay on?
I have not even mentioned the matter of money or the shortfalls of a camera that does not see, hear and feel the world as a human being does. Police need the trust of the public, which it seems to me is how this conversation started. Body cameras may play a role in earning or enhancing that trust; but does the potential harm undermine the advantages?
Will the handful of DuBose-type incidents outweigh the problems that video might create during the day-to-day interactions between police and citizens I mentioned above?
These are the questions I am waiting for the citizens of Madison to answer for my community.
Roberta Stellick is a member of the Mental Health Liaison Team of the Madison Police Department, where she has been an officer since 2010. The opinions expressed in this essay are based on her personal experience and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Madison Police Department. She welcomes readers’ comments.