Cops and Cameras

Should Cops Wear Body Cameras?

In the wake of the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown, police accountability and transparency are key talking points. Dashboard cameras have become commonplace in law enforcement, but should body cameras become the new norm too? Some say this would benefit both cops and civilians but there are a number of steps that need to be taken first.

Joining us to talk about the issue are Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Jeffrey Urdangen, clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law and director of the Center for Criminal Defense at the Bluhm Legal Clinic, and Dennis Rosenbaum, professor of criminal justice and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Read an interview and vote in our poll.

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Art LurigioArt Lurigio is a professor of criminal justice, criminology, and psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Read an interview with him about the use of body cameras by police officers.

Q: What’s your position on whether police officers should be required to wear body cameras?

I’m a social scientist by training. I only take a position when there’s an abundance of solid research and evidence on a particular issue or particular practice in law enforcement. Little research has been done on worn body cameras. There’s been some review of a few studies but there’s been no definitive studies on whether body cameras produce overall more benefits or liabilities. My position right now is neutral because I don’t have enough research evidence to come out in favor of or against the use of worn body cameras.

Q: What are some of the benefits of using this technology?

The primary benefit is it increases transparency of police action, and it may also enhance citizens’ views of police legitimacy. I don’t think there’s been any study to date on citizens’ views of the technology, but you might anticipate that citizens would mostly be in favor of police worn body cameras because that means that in real time police actions, in particular police interactions with citizens would be recorded. There would be no question about what transpired during an incident.

Also there’s the expectation that body cameras worn by police would improve police behaviors as well as citizens’ behavior. It may have a civilizing effect on the way police behave and interact with citizens. It could change their behavioral dynamics and result in fewer citizens’ complaints about police misuse of power and abuse of citizens, [and] police overuse of force. Those kinds of complaints would likely decline. On the other side of it, it may get citizens to behave in a manner that doesn’t escalate an encounter with police officers, and that may have an indirect effect with police complaints.

Q: What are some of the drawbacks of using this technology?

Citizens’ privacy may be compromised. Most of the times citizens don’t want encounters with police to be documented. There’s some right to privacy that—I’m not an expert in this area. I’m not an attorney--- there’s some expectation to the right to privacy even in a public way, and this type of technology captures in real time some stressful and traumatic kinds of experiences of private citizens that might not want them documented. When police encounter citizens, it’s usually in stressful events or the aftermath of a stressful event.

Thinking more broadly, it effects people—not suspects or [people] being stopped because of suspicions. Other people may be in the proximity to a traumatic event, someone being shot or someone injured, or they witness a confrontation and they’re on camera. And they might be traumatized and might experience being captured on a body camera as a violation of privacy.

Also, there’s some concern to police officers’ privacy. Police unions in several cities [have said] this changes the work circumstances of police. It changes the working conditions of police. Police behavior could be scrutinized, and it may interfere with kinds of spontaneous responses police have to make in situations that involve a potential threat to themselves and other citizens. And that split-second decision making that could save a life might be compromised when [police] are in a situation that is being taped.

Q: Do you think the use of this technology will increase?

Yes. I think before it is implemented at large, [people] have to understand there’s a cost attached to it, and there’s commitment of finances and resources and police training that will have to be instituted. And there’s a variety of legal considerations that have to be addressed once this type of evidence is brought be used in an arrest, prosecute, and used in a trial in determination of guilt. I think the best way to proceed is to do a review first.  We do have considerable collective experiences; review the benefits and downsides for [police] dashboard cameras. [Police] have been implementing them for several years.

I think overall dashboard cameras have been a value, so [police departments] should take stock of how that works, and it wouldn’t be as costly if police departments implemented the body worn cameras on a test basis….I think we should take a look at how it works in a more limited basis before taking it to a more widespread basis. The real challenge is to always ensure whatever technology is added to a police toolbox, you’re benefiting police not only from law enforcement standpoint, but also with establishing and cultivating relationships with citizens.

Interview has been condensed and edited.


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