The Body-Cam Dilemma: Should Cops Ever Push the ‘Off’ Button?

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Police officers should be required to keep their body cameras running during nearly all interactions with the public—including even “consensual” encounters, recommends an article in Columbia University’s Journal of Race & Law.

Limiting officers’ discretion about when to turn the cameras off is crucial to satisfying community concerns about implicit racial bias in law enforcement, wrote Julian R. Murphy, a Postgraduate Public Interest fellow at Columbia Law School.

Murphy’s paper is the latest contribution to an intense debate among police, community activists and civil liberties advocates about whether there should be any limits to how police use body cameras.

The only exceptions to mandatory use, Murphy argued, should be meetings with confidential informants or victims of offenses, during strip-searches, or when officers are in places of worship. Police should also be required to inform any individuals they stop that the interaction is being recorded.

Murphy made his recommendations based on a study of body-camera policy in 10 of the country’s largest metropolitan police forces. While eight of the departments he reviewed already consider recording mandatory to varying degrees, he singled out the New York Police Department and the Washington, DC., Metropolitan Police Department as outliers.

Both agencies give officers broad discretion to limit recording to significant enforcement events or searches of person or property.

The other police agencies studied were in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Miami-Dade.

Bodycams are now widespread in police departments around the U.S., in what has been called a “body camera revolution” in policing in the years since the 2014 shooting of  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and subsequent protests over police use-of-force against civilians, in particular against African Americans.

Most body-worn camera policies now require the recording of enforcement activities such as use of force, traffic stops, and arrests; but often some of the most corrosive or charged interactions occur during police questioning of individuals where no apparent offense has occurred, Murphy wrote.

But Murphy cited a 2016 study which found that giving officers discretion over when to activate their cameras “correlated with significantly higher incidents of officer use of force.”

Stricter policies mandating their use in most police-civilian interactions “will allow police departments to more readily identify officers acting on implicit racial biases,” Murphy wrote. “Such officers could then be disciplined and/or subjected to remedial training. […]

“Similarly, if supervisors reviewing body-worn camera footage detect a department-wide trend suggesting widely shared implicit racial biases, they could implement mandatory de-biasing training for the entire department.”

Murphy said that body-worn cameras alone are no guarantee against racial profiling or bias in police work:

We may not always know whether a racially skewed policing phenomenon—such as stop-and-frisk—is the product of deliberate or implicit racial bias; so, we need to be prepared to respond to both possibilities. Thus, any body-worn camera policy that hopes to reduce the incidence of racially motivated policing must be calibrated to change both deliberate and implicit racial bias.

In his review of policies adopted by the major-city police forces, the author found that there was a general reluctance to record consensual interactions among the police departments. Only four out of ten require such recording.

But, citing research trials which showed that officers wearing cameras behaved better, and resorted to force less often, because of their awareness that they were being “watched,” Murphy said a requirement to keep the cameras running could act as a deterrent against police misconduct.

Skeptics of more stringent recording requirements often argue that police departments lack the personnel and funding to continuously review hours of footage from the cameras. In turn, they argue that more targeted recording requirements are more cost-effective, while also capturing the bulk of situations that often lead to high-conflict escalations, including the use of force.

Murphy noted that 94 percent of 254 police departments in the 2016 study he cited earlier already use body-worn camera footage to train officers and assist in administrative reviews. That suggested, he wrote, a greater willingness to tackle the extensive camera footage involved.

Instead of taking on an entirely new and costly endeavor, reviewing each interaction would mean just expanding the review processes already in place, according to the author.

In other words, it is a question of recalibrating department spending and hiring priorities.

Meanwhile, groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Police Foundation have voiced concerns about the potential risks of unlimited recording. The ACLU has said that although unrestrained recording could amount to a vast increase in police surveillance, the use of body cameras can improve police transparency and accountability.

Police, for their part, complain that unlimited recording could undermine police efficiency. In an essay posted on the Police Foundation website, Burlington, Vt., Chief Brandon Del Pozo warned that any policy which prevents an officer from ever turning off the camera is “deeply flawed.”

Among the risks, he said, was that automatic recordings would “capture confidential conversations with people who want to tell the police where the criminals are on their block…[or] police discussing the lawful but sensitive tactics they use to investigate criminals and apprehend them.”

Responding to such concerns, Murphy said his model was not intended to resolve every technical problem or ethical dilemma involved in creating a sound camera activation policy; but it was aimed at establishing a reasonable standard to satisfy community concerns about implicit bias.

“Though body-worn cameras may go some way to curbing racial bias in policing, they are almost certainly not the panacea that some people initially hoped they would be,” Murphy wrote.

“In order to best reduce racial bias in policing, what is needed is change in recruiting, organizational culture, training, and accountability mechanisms. This will take time.

“In the meantime, body-worn cameras can complement the broader change strategy.”

The paper can be downloaded here.

Roman Gressier is a contributing writer to The Crime Report and a news intern.

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