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Criminal Justice

Police Departments Quickly Adopting “Body-Worn Cameras” That Put Citizen Encounters On Video

In a recent nationwide survey of police departments, one out of every four departments said they’ve begun to equip their officers with body-worn cameras on at least a trial basis. The survey came from the Police Executive Research Forum, which recently hosted a day-long conference on this new technology. Attending in person along with a standing room only crowd of police department leadership from jurisdictions around the country, we were surprised to find that most people in the room plan or expect to deploy such cameras in the next few years.

Axon Flex Body Worn Camera

Dashboard cameras inside police vehicles are already widespread. But these new devices — such as the Taser corp. “Axon Flex” glasses pictured at right — move with the officer and capture crucial moments that take place away from the vehicle. Being on camera creates a strong incentive for officers to act reasonably. It also assures citizens and officers alike that challenging situations will be objectively documented on camera and can be addressed after the fact. So far (anecdotally and in one small study) the arrival of these systems has correlated with a significant drop in citizen complaints about police misconduct.

In her August 12 Stop and Frisk ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to pilot body worn cameras in some precincts, a requirement that NYPD leadership and the mayor have blasted in public and are resisting in court. But it was one of the city’s own expert witnesses, a former chief detective of the Oakland Police Department, who first gave the court the idea to require the cameras. A recent report in TechPresident sums up his thinking: “Officers who haven’t experienced the cameras are generally suspicious of [the cameras], but once they’ve used [them] for some time, they don’t want to part with them.” The cameras also earn a generally favorable (if muted) reaction from civil libertarians, including Arthur Spitzer of the local DC ACLU.

It may seem surprising for civil liberties advocates to cheer the rollout of these cameras, but it actually makes great sense. As Bruce Schneier has written, the value of any privacy tradeoff depends in part on “the relative power levels” of the people watching and the ones being watched. Here, cameras help citizens hold the power structure accountable, creating objective evidence of misconduct – they tend to narrow the power gap between police and communities.

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