Do body cameras make the police and the public safer?

The 360 is a feature designed to show you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

Speed read

What's happening: In theory, the use of police body cameras is easy to endorse, offering an unvarnished account of what happens when police and citizens interact. In practice, however, the technology's rollout in recent years has been complicated and rife with conflict.

Just in the past week, there have been questions about why Phoenix police officers weren't wearing cameras when, with guns drawn, they confronted a family, arguments over the release of footage from a fatal police shooting in Fort Worth, Texas, and debate in California on whether the cameras should be equipped with facial recognition capability.

After Michael Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in 2014, a heated national debate was set in motion about police violence, and police departments across the country adopted body cameras in hopes the technology would make obsolete disputed accounts of what occurred. By 2016, nearly half of all law enforcement agencies in the country were using body cameras.

Why there's debate: In recent years, the cameras themselves have become the source of intense debate, as fights over the public's right to access the footage they gather and accusations of misuse have arisen.

The idea that police officers should wear body cameras is extremely popular with the public, and the majority of police officers support the idea as well. It is easy to understand why. The cameras can provide a definitive record of an incident. The intent is that police will be less likely to use force inappropriately and officers will be protected if the details of an incident are disputed.

And there is evidence to support that hypothesis, as body camera footage has been used to catch crooked cops and to show that officers were justified in their actions after a shooting.

However, while body cameras have the potential to increase trust between the police and the public, critics say that promise has come up short. For every example of the cameras being used appropriately, they argue, there are cases of abuse. Officers often have control over when their cameras are turned on, and police departments can withhold or edit the tape. As a result, the public is often denied the chance to see what actually happened, and that failure to disclose information sparks suspicions that footage is being withheld to conceal police misconduct.

What's next: The use of body cameras by law enforcement agencies is expected to increase in the near future. As many as 95 percent of large police departments have said they either employ or intend to employ the technology. At the same time, some departments are shutting down their programs, saying it's too expensive.

Some states have implemented laws requiring some or all of their law enforcement to wear body cameras and have set rules for how the public can access the footage. For example, a law requiring that footage from critical incidents be released within 45 days goes into effect in California on July 1.

Perspectives

When used correctly, body cameras benefit everyone.

"Properly used, police body cameras can help increase trust within the community. They can provide meaningful context about situations involving a police shooting or another confrontation. They can reveal serious misconduct…They also can exonerate officers who act professionally." — Editorial, Tampa Bay Times

Police departments have too much power to decide what the public gets to see.

"Body cameras were embraced as a way to help build trust between police and communities. But in reality the public has little power to see the video if law enforcement agencies want to keep it out of the public view." — Mitch Mitchell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Body cameras are only valuable when used correctly by police departments.

"Research suggests body cameras are only as successful as the departments they are implemented in." — P.R. Lockhart, Vox

Laws should be changed to prevent abuse of the technology by police.

"Police officers should not have the ability to turn off their own body cameras. Body camera videos should be automatically sent to and controlled by an independent oversight structure, not the police." — Policy analyst Samuel Sinyangwe, Twitter

Body cam video is a valuable tool in finding the truth.

"For anyone who wasn’t there, figuring out exactly what happened can be challenging. That’s especially true of encounters between citizens and police officers. Having a video recording of such confrontations can make a huge difference for officials trying to determine what happened. Video can clear up discrepancies and help support or debunk one or both versions." — Robin Beres, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Body cameras benefit the police more than the public.

"The technology has proven benefits for police officers, but far fewer for the policed."
— Jonathan Ben-Menachem, The Appeal

Bureaucracy is often used to keep the footage secret.

"Police videos are considered public records in nearly every state, but vague laws and exemptions often give police chiefs and prosecutors wide discretion to determine when to release them." — Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press

Officers benefit from having a video record of their behavior.

"Officers are liking body-worn cameras more and more because they see it as protection against frivolous complaints.” — Criminology expert Cynthia Lum to Governing

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