After the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department expanded their use of body cameras, many activists thought that they would see a dramatic improvement in police behavior but there was a huge flaw in that thinking.
What happens if the police are behaving in a professional manner?
What difference would a body camera make then?
I’ve said for years that law enforcement should welcome body cameras because as a whole, law enforcement is more educated, more professional and more capable than ever before and there is no better way to show that than a camera.
And the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department just laid proof to that claim. The study called “Evaluating the Effects of Police Body-Worn Camera,” placed 1000 police officers with a camera and compared those officers to 1000 others without a camera and saw virtually no change in behavior from the officers.
The flaw of the previous studies was the small sample size. The Rialto (CA) Study suggested that cameras had a calming effect on police officers and while manufacturers touted it and activists demanded cameras on every officer from it, that sample size was just 54 police officers.
But law enforcement does what we so often do. We listen to the demands of a few (and in the Rialto Case, very few) and in an effort to placate, we spend money and in the case of body cameras, we have spent millions with millions more to come.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the concept of cameras because if done right, they show us what we are, incredible professionals doing a job in extreme conditions and facing some of the worse human beings on the planet.
The problem, as I see it, is we throw a body camera on a police officer, spend millions on data storage, and then hide the videos away until controversy occurs. Once the media demands the video, we release it without any context and bunker down for the screams of the uninformed.
It happens over and over again and until we change how we use the camera footage, it will never go away and it will not matter how many studies show whatever they show.
I advocate the use of body cameras but agencies should do the following if they are going to use them.
- Video footage should be released as a constant stream rather than as a reactive measure to the media requesting it. Why would we expect the public to get an accurate portrayal of what we do when the only video we release is that video that the media demands because they sense something was done wrong. Agencies should proactively release a wide variety of video to their own website for the public to see and when the occasional “controversial” video comes out, the public can watch that with the balance of all rather than the shock of one.
- Video should be given context by those that know more about the video than anyone, law enforcement. Nothing drives me more nuts than the proverbial “video drop.” You have seen it. The Chief or Sheriff stands at the podium, plays the video and walks away. Then, for days or maybe weeks, the so called experts tell us what is on the video. Why would we shy away of telling the public exactly the who, what, where and why of each video. No one knows more than the law enforcement agency involved so why would we let others tell the story? The first story always becomes the story and law enforcement knows the story so we need to start telling it.
95% of police agencies report that that they are using body cameras and there is a reason that use of force, behavior and a mix of other data has not changed in the profession.
Because law enforcement is not the problem.
Sure, we have some isolated incidents each year that everyone can name and that fact alone should tell you that there is not an institutional problem with the greatest profession on the planet. There is no other profession that could wear a body camera and be as successful as the American Police Officer.
That is a guarantee!