The proliferation of cell phones makes it easier than ever for citizens to record police interactions. While transparency is important, it’s not clear that’s what’s actually being provided by the recordings.
Citizen Recordings Don’t Provide the Whole Picture
Many citizen recordings begin when use of force is observed. But the incidents that led up to that moment were not filmed– possibly they weren’t even witnessed. Further, when citizens record incidents with their phones and leave the scene, law enforcement personnel have no control over chain of evidence. As a result, it can be difficult to determine whether a recording was tampered with.
Make Sure the Full Story Is Told
While many officers are concerned about the addition of recording technology to police departments, this method is the best way to ensure that the full story is told. The newer, smaller body cams (as small as a pager) are even more effective than older forms of recording technology. Too often, an interaction has taken an officer out of view of his or her dashboard cam, creating a he-said, she-said situation that is difficult to resolve in court. Body cams go with you.
Provide Better Evidence to Prosecutors
Video evidence has the added advantage of being far more compelling in court than verbal testimony. What’s more, cams actually decrease both citizen complaints and use of force. There appear to be several reasons for this.
- First, false complaints are less likely to be filed, and if filed more likely to be dropped because the video evidence exists.
- Second, human memory is faulty. Even complaints or testimony offered in good faith may be erroneous, and a video can set the record straight.
Officer accuracy is also increased, particularly when officers write their reports immediately after an incident, using the video as a guideline.
Body Cams Reduce the Use of Force
A variety of studies have concluded body cams reduce use of force by more than 50%. The University of South Florida found that this decreased both civilian and officer injuries. In fact, some officers interviewed stated that they felt the cameras de-escalated conflict, in part because people behaved differently when they knew a confrontation was being filmed.
As always, there’s some training involved. Federal rules of evidence require, among other things, that the officer be competent to operate the camera, that parties being filmed are identified on the footage, and that no one on camera is being induced in any way.
It’s also important to understand state privacy laws, which may prohibit certain types of recording. It’s best to issue cams to specific officers, to avoid confusion. But once you iron out these considerations, body cams are an important tool that results in better police work all the way around, and protects the reputations of officers who might otherwise have no clear defense against false accusations.