With President Barack Obama’s Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Pilot Partnership Program planning to purchase 50,000 body cameras at a national level, local law enforcement agencies are currently taking the initiative to utilize this technology. In a 60-day trial period, the Riverside Police Department (RPD) is testing out how body cameras can put “people [or rather policemen] on their best behavior” and, as Chief Deputy Kevin Vest claimed on May 11, the test-trial’s reports are “overwhelmingly positive.” RPD is not the only local law enforcement to have taken up this initiative, despite national funding still in the works. Police departments in Cleveland, Ferguson and Birmingham have already decided to purchase body cameras in light of the issues between police officers and civilians.
While these local initiatives are comforting in the sense that law enforcement agencies are responding to criticisms they have received as of late, the increasing usage of body cameras should be decided with care due to the possible manipulation of footage and high price for storage. RPD must critically judge whether its test trial should be taken on as a department policy based on standards like transparency, such as how police officers handle equipment.
Taser International (the company that mass produces non-lethal weapons and body cameras) spokesman, Steve Tuttle, said it best when explaining this influx of body camera purchases during the Ferguson protests last year: “Not only did police recognize, ‘I wish they would’ve had a video,’ but now families and all these activists are saying, ‘I wish they would’ve had a video.” At the time of Michael Brown’s death, many on both sides claimed that footage would have been a sure way to settle any questions: did Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, overreact or did Brown fight back? With the use of body cameras, the judicial system will have an unbiased witness to police violence, which is very comforting to civilians. This technology is a needed check on police officers.
RPD’s own history is steeped in racism and improper behavior from its police officers, such as the shooting of Tyisha Miller by those who did not face prosecution due to lack of evidence. With a gun on her lap, Miller was found asleep in her car and was not an apparent threat, however officers fired upon her, instigating protests from Riverside’s African-American community. In another instance, claiming to have faced harassment from RPD, Kevin Mitton, a fifth-year computer science major, believes body cameras could have a played a role in preventing it and stressed that “Accountability needs to be instilled on police officers in light of situations (involving police brutality) that have been happening across the United States.”
However, even with footage, keeping police officers in line and prosecuting any aggressive overreacting is still a tedious and, at times, unsuccessful process. Unfortunately, this was the case with Eric Garner whose last words — ”I can’t breathe” — were captured on film while officers wrapped him in a chokehold. Despite compelling evidence, the police officers were not indicted immediately, and instead underwent a three day training on police aggression. Along with video evidence being dismissed as illegitimate in a court of law, body cameras can be manipulated by police officers turning it off at certain times or damaging the lens. Even if the camera is not damaged, the video itself could be digitally manipulated to delete certain scenes in order not to indict police officers. Such injustice highlights not only the limited power of video footage, but ultimately the larger problems within our criminal justice system.
Beyond the ethics of footage, the cost of using body cameras is high due to the need to store gigabytes, and eventually terabytes, of data. Adopting a body camera policy back in 2011, Rialto Police Department will be facing this issue once their contract with TASER International expires, which allows for the department to store 3 terabytes of data with the company. After 2016, the department will have to pay for their own data storage in either a system that allows for immediate access or requires 24 hour’s notice, ultimately affecting the budget plans of the city.
If RPD is to approve the use of body cameras, the department must keep all of these issues in mind as standards of evaluation. The call for body cameras arrived when there was an increasing need for transparency in law enforcement actions inside and out. With that said, we at the Highlander have devised our own standards to judge whether the RPD’s body camera initiative will be a success or failure. While we welcome the change that our local law enforcement is striving to achieve, we hope the program will be progressive in not only bringing peace of mind, but actively changing how our criminal justice system works.
-Any footage should be made public record.
-A third party should handle the public record of footage.
-Strict measures should be carried out to make sure footage is never tampered with, such as heavy encryption.
-Officers should turn in body cameras immediately after shift.
-Rates of complaints on police aggression lowers.
-After public opinion is polled after trial period, poll is in favor of body cameras.
-After police officers’ opinion is polled after trial period, poll is in favor of body cameras.
-Footage is not made public record.
-RPD solely handles record of footage.
-Privacy is intruded upon with usage of body cameras.
-Police officers’ usage of body cameras is not strictly regulated.
-Rates of complaints on police aggression heightens.
-After public opinion is polled after trial period, poll is in against of body cameras.
-After police officers’ opinion is polled after trial period, results are not in favor of body cameras.