Over the past few years, the use of body cameras on police officers has become more and more commonplace. The introduction of cameras has made it possible to corroborate testimonies provided by police, suspects, and witnesses, which ideally makes it an incredibly useful tool for everyone involved.
First of all, the presence of body cameras during the course of a traffic stop or an arrest certainly helps the people that the police are serving. For example, a case concerning body camera footage in Baltimore has resulted in hundreds of cases being dropped due to unlawful arrest procedures — specifically, planting drugs on suspects to justify arrests.
Most police officers tend to be more careful about following the proper procedure when they know that they are being recorded – this is something that is true in all walks of life. For example, a cashier is more likely to be doing everything by the book if there are in-store cameras. Not only does this protect citizens, it also helps prevent police officers from making careless mistakes.
Cameras also protect police by providing evidence that they have made a legal arrest or stop and that they followed the proper protocol. Not only can body cameras help both citizens and police officers, they can also help to improve the relationship between them.
Citizens will feel much more at ease knowing that any conversation they are having with officers is being recorded, which means that they will be more willing to follow directions and less likely to put up any kind of resistance if they are being arrested because they know that their compliance is being recorded.
Interestingly but not surprisingly given how memory works, police testimony does not always match what appears on camera, especially during high-stress situations. Of course, the same can be said for suspects and witnesses. However, police departments have the advantage of viewing video before filing reports, giving them a chance to “get their story straight.”
Anyone concerned about state surveillance naturally objects to there being more cameras on the streets. It’s important to restrict how police camera data can be used.
Cameras without audio playback leave room for interpretation of the recorded events. And of course, if an officer gets to choose when to start recording, this can lead to video as skewed and one-sided as civilian cell phone videos. Because of this, departments need to emphasize transparency and compliance with best practices.
Critics also point out that without cultural change throughout the practice of policing, cameras are simply a distraction from real institutional issues that particularly affect communities of color. Proponents of body cameras counter that they are just one way of many to build trust and accountability for police and civilians alike.
As a relatively new practice, body cameras have not proven to protect officers or eliminate profiling and wrongful arrests. The academics in criminal justice will have to collect and analyze data over time to measure how well they really work, and for whom. Meanwhile, the need for effective representation in court isn’t going anywhere.