Cops on Camera: Body cameras should be a requirement for police


December 9, 2014

The following op-ed piece was written by Cathedral Prep senior Ryan Signorino. All opinions expressed are his own personal opinions.

A police officer rolls up to two young men walking in the street. There is an altercation through the window of the vehicle. The boy runs away, and the officer fires at him. The boy turns around, and is shot dead. Now depending on the stance one take’s on the Mike Brown case, those events play out differently. No one knows exactly what happened, which makes the case tricky to deal with.

In any conflict with opposing viewpoints, the most important piece of evidence in many cases is eyewitness testimonies. Nearly every conflict has at least one witness that can attest to what did or did not happen in a case. One step better than eyewitnesses, however, is a video of the event. In most cases, the footage is a surveillance video, or more recently, recording a video with a phone.

The recent shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri had eyewitnesses, but those supporting Brown were conflicting on major points in the shooting, and Darren Wilson, the cop that shot Brown, had a story that did not remain consistent throughout. Now if only there was some surveillance of the event, the storyline of what happened may be clearer; however, there is no available video of the event. The Michael Brown shooting sparked controversy over the racial tensions present in America, as well as racial profiling and police brutality.

In the firestorm that ensued in Ferguson, people wanted cops across the country to be liable for their actions; they wanted cops to be required to wear body cameras. The basic function of a body camera is exactly what it sounds like; the officer wears a small camera somewhere on their body, such as on the chest, shoulder, or on a pair of glasses. With a body camera, police would, theoretically, be less likely to do something controversial.

The effectiveness of body-worn cameras has already been proven. A study done by William Farrar of the police department in Rialto, California conducted over the course of twelve months saw impressive results. Despite only half of the officers being equipped with cameras, complaints about officers dropped 88%. Officers also had to use force 60% less often than before the cameras were implemented. Officers that did not have a camera were also twice as likely to use force as those wearing cameras. While these numbers are not a clear indicator that body cameras on police officers are effective, it does show the potential positive implications that they could have.

Body cameras could also act as protection for both the civilian and the cop. No charges can be given if there is video evidence of something. This protects the civilian in obvious ways; in Michael Brown’s case, the video surveillance would show exactly what happened during the altercation. Police are also protected from having complaints wrongly filed against them. Each side benefits from the technological advancement on the police department’s end.

The major gripe over body cameras is privacy. People are concerned about police departments having video of them. But those concerns have been thought through. It has been made clear that citizens do not have to worry about their video showing up on the news, and that videos could be deleted from storage after a given amount of time to ensure that videos are not used against someone in any way.

Privacy is also a concern for the officers that must actually wear the body cameras. This is not a very viable concern, however, because almost any other job has some kind of surveillance system in place. People working in retail and food have cameras on them constantly. The cameras could also possibly be turned on and off so that they are not recording video the entire day. However, that ability could easily be abused by an officer not turning on their camera during an altercation.

The use of this new technology would have immensely helped in the Mike Brown case. The conflicting evidence could have been watched on the recorded video and the true sequence of events would have been shown. A video would confirm who instigated the scuffle in the SUV, the distance away from the vehicle Wilson and Brown were when the shots were fired, and if Brown had his hands raised when turning back towards Wilson. Not only would video be of importance, but audio as well. Both sides claim the other used expletives during the confrontation, and audio of the event could prove or disprove that.

Whether or not people want police equipped with body cameras, that change is coming. President Obama recently announced a three-year, $263 million plan that would give $75 million to equip 50,000 police officers with body cameras. This move is in the right direction, and many initially jumped on the bandwagon that this would be great; however, due to recent events, there is much reason to still be skeptical.

Despite the Michael Brown case having no video evidence, other shootings by police officers have sparked tensions, and have video evidence that shows what happened. The most well-known is that of Eric Garner, a large 43 year old black man that was approached by police officers in New York for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner refused to be arrested and was put into a chokehold by a police officer from behind; a maneuver illegal in New York for over 20 years. Garner was taken to the ground and eventually died from being unable to breathe, which he told the officers more than 10 times while on the ground. The scene was captured on a bystander’s phone and was uploaded to YouTube, and eventually went viral. Despite the video, no indictment was given to the officer that applied the chokehold.

Other shootings have occurred that were captured on video as well. John Crawford, a 22 black man, was shot inside of an Ohio Walmart. Crawford was holding a pellet or airsoft gun that he had gotten from the store. A 911 caller said Crawford was pointing the fake gun at shoppers, but the available video surveillance shows none of this, and the caller later took back the claim. The officers responding to the scene also said different things happened compared to what the video shows, saying they commanded Crawford to drop the toy gun, while the video shows the police officer shooting him right after the command.

Another 22 year old black man was shot in a shopping center in Utah. Darrien Hunt was cosplaying, dressing up as a character, and had a toy sword on his back. The cops allege that he swung the sword at them before running away. Video from some stores show Hunt running and the police in pursuit. Hunt was then shot from behind as the autopsy shows. One of the cops that shot Hunt also happened to be wearing a body camera, but he had not turned it on.

And perhaps the most tragic of all, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black child, had a BB gun with the orange tip indicating it was fake removed. A 911 caller said that he was waving it around and that it was probably fake, however, the police were never conveyed the “probably fake” portion of the call. The officers pulled up to 5 or 10 feet away from Rice and shot him less than 2 seconds after getting out of the police car. The officers involved claimed a different scenario happened, but a surveillance video shows the event. Even more, the officers did not provide Rice with first-aid, and the one who delivered the shots resigned from another police force after a report that he was unable to properly use a firearm.

While this does not have to do with police wearing body cameras, it is tough to not compare some of these shootings to recent shootings by white civilians. Eric Fein killed one police officer and wounded another in Pennsylvania in September 2014, and after a long manhunt was found and arrested by police. Fein was unarmed at the time he was found. And in Colorado in 2012, the Aurora Movie Theater shooting culprit Jason Eagan Holmes, was arrested at the theater without any problems. While these two cases are completely unrelated to the other shootings above, it makes one question some police officer’s use of force.

As for body cameras, they are a step in the right direction. While the recent shootings with video evidence haven’t been successful, the preliminary results from the Rialto Police Department show that body cameras have the possibility of making a positive change if they are used correctly. At the very least, body cameras will provide clear, concise evidence of any proceedings that happen while they are active, and can hopefully make cops think of other ways of dealing with a situation, such as calling for backup, using a Taser, or shooting not to kill.

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