Police Body Cameras No Cure-All; It’s Not Clear If They Will Save Lives


Police body cameras can be effective at some things, but they're not a cure-all, says Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute in a Washington Post feature offering five myths about the power of body cams. One of them is that body cams capture the whole story. In fact, they have the same limitations as stationary public surveillance cameras, or CCTV (closed-circuit television), including the camera's viewshed, available lighting and low-visibility weather conditions. They are not filming on a 24/7 basis. Officers have discretion in choosing when to turn their cameras on, which can affect what they capture and how effective the footage will be. Video won’t necessarily root out bad cops. Police unions have had a say in whether law enforcement agencies adopt body cameras.

Although body cams are public equipment and the videos they record may technically be public records, that doesn't mean the public will get immediate or unlimited access to the footage. Meeting public demand is costly because it requires removing parts that aren't for public consumption first. Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier says it takes 17 hours to prep just four minutes of footage. Finally, it isn’t clear that the cameras ultimately will save lives. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) says, “a video is worth a thousand pictures and untold lives,” but La Vigne says, “the jury’s still out.”

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