Are Police Body Cams Ensuring Officer Accountability?

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Body-worn cameras are reshaping perceptions of policing. The devices, typically mounted on officers’ shirts, provide a lens into law enforcement that is meant to build transparency and trust. Their increased use has also raised a host of questions and concerns, the New York Times reports in a four-chapter video series. Among them are who should have access to recordings? How will the footage be used? What are the privacy rights of people caught on video? What are the long-term costs to taxpayers? Police departments large and small are rolling out expensive body-camera programs without consistent answers to the questions or convincing evidence that the cameras ensure the level of accountability that the public demands.

At least 19 states have enacted laws restricting public access to footage, and a dozen more are proposing legislation. The video series examines the challenges and incentives surrounding the rapid rise of police body cameras. The story begins in Cincinnati, with a pitch for their use to officers in training. Research for the project began in August after Chicago police officers, recently equipped with body-worn cameras, shot and killed an 18-year-old African-American named Paul O’Neal. In the weeks after the death, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority released hours of footage from body and dashboard cameras. Absent from the trove of video was footage of the fatal shot — a fact that led to weeks of protests and claims of a police cover-up. More than half of all medium-to-large U.S. police departments now use or are testing body-worn cameras in a pilot program, says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum.

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