Can cameras help police the police?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

They may carry an arsenal of expensive military grade hardware, but a $900 gadget might just be a cop’s best friend: a camera.

Today’s armored policeman is a product of evolving concepts in response to crime. The unrest of the 1960s brought about the invention of the SWAT unit—which in turn led to the debut of military tactics in the ranks of police officers. Nixon’s War on Drugs, Reagan’s War on Poverty, Clinton’s COPS program, the post–9/11 security state under Bush and Obama—by degrees, each of these innovations expanded and empowered police forces, always at the expense of civil liberties. Armored trucks “intended for an overseas battlefield,” M-16 rifles and grenade launchers have become everyday tech in local police departments across the country.

Yet the crises that require armored shock troops never arrived. The crime rate for violent offenses has been plummeting for decades, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which catalogues state and local crimes in a federal database of uniform crime reporting statistics. The crime rate for aggravated robberies and assaults in Washington was 295 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2012, the last year for which there are complete records, down from more than 500 incidents per 100,000 in the 1990s. These compare with national trends.

The army was equipped. The war never came.

Instead, police face a far more sophisticated situation in a world filled with social media and social organizing tools in the hands of citizens increasingly aware of their rights and liberties in a modern society. Their battlefield armor is an actual liability to what’s required, which is a human interaction between peace officers and the public they serve.

The clash between police and citizens that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, last week and that continues this week starkly illustrates the mismatch.

An unarmed black teenager was shot and killed there by a police officer, the aftermath widely captured and re-broadcast by cellphone cameras and social media, enraging locals and touching off a civil protest inflamed again and again by an aggressive police response. Yet no record apparently exists of the events leading directly up to the shooting, including the conduct of the officer who attempted to detain the youth, or the behavior of the youth in response to the officer. We have forensics, but little understanding of actions that led to them.

Throughout the protests, Ferguson police reportedly hectored citizens and journalists to turn off their cameras and recording devices. But what would the situation have looked like if police had to wear their own devices?

Bellingham faces little of the racial unrest that beset towns like Ferguson, but analogous situations do exist here: An aggressive crackdown by armored police on a quiet Occupy protest in a municipal park in 2011. An armed standoff that resulted in the death of a mentally ill man earlier this summer.

Our trust that these events were handled appropriately and properly rest solely on our trust in the integrity of our police, period, for little objective record exists of their conduct.

That’s changing, thanks to a new pilot program introduced by Bellingham Police Chief Clifford Cook at the beginning of this year to arm patrol officers with cameras. Cook reported on the 90-day trial program to Bellingham City Council in July and announced his department would deploy the cameras in greater numbers next year.

“After months of staff research, policy discussions and a 90-day field testing period, the Bellingham Police department will begin a ‘phased-in’ approach toward implementing a Body Worn Camera (BWC) program,” Cook reported to council. The cameras can be affixed to eyewear or the officer’s uniform and switched on, under governing policy, as required in police interactions with the public.

“The BWC is a tool that allows officers to both video and audio record their interaction with people. It is a ‘point-of view’ system designed to improve transparency between our police department and the community,” the chief reported. “In peer-reviewed studies, BWC systems reduce use-of-force applications, reduce sustained citizen complaints and is the best evidence as to what took place during a given call,” he said. “By providing the best evidence of actual event footage, we expect to see a considerable decrease in overtime costs for court, as well as a substantial decrease in contested court actions. This has been the case for many agencies who have utilized BWC systems.”

“Everyone behaves better when they’re on video,” Steve Ward, the president of a company that makes wearable gear, told ReasonTV earlier this year. Ward is a former Seattle police officer and agrees body cams are a device needed in the field.

Bellingham Police chose equipment from a competing provider, Taser BWC, because of greater flexibility of how the device can be mounted and storage options for captured footage, Cook noted.

In 2012, Rialto, a small city in California’s San Bernardino County, outfitted its police officers with similar small body cams. The $900 cameras weighed 108 grams and were small enough to fit on each officer’s collar or sunglasses. They recorded full-color video for up to 12 hours, which was automatically uploaded at the end of each shift, where it could be held and analyzed in a central database.

When researchers studied the effect of cameras on police behavior, the conclusions were striking. Within a year, the number of complaints filed against police officers in Rialto fell by 88 percent and “use of force” fell by 59 percent.

“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief William A. Farrar, the Rialto police chief, told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

The Rialto Study now serves as a centerpiece in the national debate about arming police officers with recording devices. Cook affirmed the research, noting 25 agencies in Washington either deploy or are researching the cameras.

Technology does not come without consequence, and of great concern in the deployment of surveillance equipment are the rights and privacy of citizens under the panopticon. As one report on body cameras notes: “There are hidden social and ethical costs to the inescapable panopticonic gaze itself. If BWCs become common, it means more electronic surveillance, more digitized tagging of individuals, and arguably more challenges to privacy rights.”

The answer, Cook said, lies in responsive public policy in the use of body cams.

As a result of their own study, Bellingham Police have developed a policy for the use of body cams that follows state laws governing consent and privacy of citizens. Full deployment of the equipment is anticipated to cost $130,000 and will be paid through the department’s criminal justice fund, he said. The cost includes storage and database services.

Specific instances where cameras would be used include traffic stops, arrests, crimes in progress and, “obviously, in interactions where individuals are displaying conduct that is aggressive,” he said.

A camera pinned to the shoulder of a cop is not going to fix all of society’s problems. But it does perhaps offer a brake to America’s warrior-police problem, allowing the public to police the police.

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