WASHINGTON — In the wake of deadly police shootings and beatings, police departments across the country are looking to body cameras as a way to restore trust and transparency.
An ongoing roll-out in D.C. makes the nation’s capital one of an increasing number of cities—including Denver, New Orleans, and Detroit—to test the technology in the past year.
“Body cameras are a nationwide trend. You can’t even really keep track of how many departments are moving to it,” said Michael Tobin, executive director of D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints. “It’s going to be like dash cams were 10 years ago when every department that could afford them got them.”
The technology is not cheap. In D.C., the police department estimates it will cost $1,500 per officer, per year.
President Barack Obama proposed a $263 million federal program in December that would match funds committed to body cameras by local police departments. Since then, body cameras have become a viable option for communities to restore trust and accountability.
“Basically, body-mounted cameras can provide transparency for all the parties,” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, the head of the District’s ACLU, which worked to develop the city’s pilot program last year. “It can result in fewer incidences of both police misconduct and frivolous citizen complaints.”
Measuring the impact
Cities that have expanded their pilot programs are only in the beginning stages of deployment, and little has been done to study the effects of police body cameras in the United States. But in the United Kingdom, the technology has been around for much longer.
In the Scottish city of Renfrewshire, where body cameras have been in use since 2009, an independent study found that cases documented by body camera were 70 to 80 percent less likely to go to court. Plymouth, England—which first began using cameras in 2006—reported a 14.3 percent reduction in citizen complaints.
Some evidence has shown that body cameras can be successful in the United States, too. In Rialto, Calif., a study found that police officers wearing body cameras were half as likely to use force as those who weren’t.
When Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced the D.C. pilot in September, she predicted it could reduce the number of complaints filed against police officers as much as 80 percent.
So far, that has not been the case.
“Our complaints are up in general over the first quarter of this year and the last quarter of last year,” said Tobin. “I would say from September to present we’ve had an increase of about 20 percent.”
But Tobin said it is too early to know what impact the cameras will have once fully deployed.
“I do not attribute the increase to the body camera [pilot]. I attribute it more to better public outreach and to increased attention to police misconduct,” said Tobin. “People are more apt to make a complaint.”
In some cases, Tobin said, the 400 body cameras that were deployed as part of the pilot have made a difference.
“We have been able to resolve several complaints as a result of body camera footage that we’ve been able to view,” said Tobin. “They’re going to help with any type of complaint in which the camera is running and it is turned on.”
In the case of Eric Garner’s death in July, however, cell phone footage shot by an onlooker did little to help. The presence of a camera didn’t seem to deter the officers involved, and video evidence failed to bring an indictment.
“Body cameras are simply a tool. Without the proper policies in place and constant enforcing of those policies… they’re not going to be a good tool,” said Hopkins-Maxwell. “But they can be incredibly effective. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and just say they’re not worth investing in because of one case that’s not a case of police mounted body cameras.”
The ‘adjustment phase’
As cities across the country continue to test the waters, doubts remain about how the cameras will be used—and if they will be used at all. In Denver, an independent monitor found that police failed to turn on the cameras in more than half of use-of-force incidents.
“With any new technology, there’s going to be an adjustment phase both for the users and the people in the community,” said Tobin. “As long as the department has good disciplinary measures for when the officer doesn’t turn on the camera when they’re supposed to, I think it’s going to be just fine.”
Yet in many cities, body camera policy remains unclear.
Hopkins-Maxwell said the D.C. Council was expecting a report on the pilot before deployment but was “surprised to learn” that no report was available during the department’s annual oversight hearing on Tuesday, during which Lanier confirmed the roll-out.
A spokeswoman for the police department did not respond to request for comment, but documents submitted to the council indicated that the department plans to “develop a strategy” by Sept. 30.
Hopkins-Maxwell said she is “tentatively pleased with that position,” but further clarity is needed.
“We support the use of body cameras but really want to make sure that they are properly used with really good policies in place,” said Hopkins-Maxwell. “Body cameras are not a be-all-end-all solution to concerns about police practices and police interactions with the public.”
On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a $4.75 million program aimed at addressing those concerns. The federal pilot program, which will take place in six cities across the U.S., hopes to improve relations between law enforcement officers and their communities.
Although it is unclear whether the program will fund body cameras, Holder has repeatedly called for local police to embrace the technology.
“It’s going to take a period of time, several years I think, to get things closer to where they should be,” said Tobin. “It’s something that has to be done every day by every cop on the street… and once we get there, we have to make special efforts to make sure it stays that way.”
Body cameras, Tobin said, are “the way of the future.”