Police body cameras are coming into use more and more by law enforcement agencies after instances of police officers shooting unarmed suspects and allegations of police brutality.
Cases where body cameras might have been helpful include Freddie Gray’s, who was injured and then died after an arrest in Baltimore in 2015, or unarmed teenager Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Both incidents led to public outrage and concluded with acquittals or no charges filed against the officers.
What are the advantages of police body cameras?
“Having body cameras holds everyone accountable — the officers and the public,” Hattiesburg Police Chief Anthony Parker said in an email interview. “It is a vital tool in today’s society in law enforcement, as well as helpful in gathering evidence for an investigation.”
It’s not clear how many law enforcement agencies in Mississippi use police body cameras, but in 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi collected body camera policies from 65 out of 147 agencies in the state.
The Hattiesburg Police Department has used the cameras for all its officers since 2016.
The department’s policy requires officers to wear the cameras whenever performing a law enforcement duty. There are guidelines for when an officer may deactivate his camera.
The Jackson Police Department has had police body cameras for about four months. Department officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the use of their cameras.
Studies on the devices are mixed — with some showing benefits, others showing disadvantages and one major study showing no effect at all. But Parker said the police body cameras have been a boon to his department.
“The advantages are tremendous,” he said. “They range from evidence collection to accountability.
“They also help all parties involved in the event of a complaint.”
When announcing the acquisition of police body cameras at the Jackson Police Department at the end of June, spokesman Sam Brown said they would improve accountability and transparency, increase productivity, serve to clear officers of alleged misconduct and reduce the number of unnecessary excessive force complaints against the department.
The Jackson Police Department has cameras for every patrol officer. They are required to turn on the camera when alerted to a call and keep recording until the call is considered complete. Officers who don’t record calls face disciplinary measures.
Has the use of police body cameras increased?
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice distributed surveys to 500 police departments nationwide. About half responded and less than 25 percent were using police body cameras.
In a 2015 survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs Association, 96% of law enforcement agencies either had police body cameras or were moving forward with them.
Wesley Jennings, professor of legal studies at the University of Mississippi, said he is surprised by the proliferation of body-worn cameras.
“People knew about it in the public before Ferguson and that brought the conversation to the forefront,” he said. “At the time — pre-Ferguson — I was thinking (the use of body cameras) would be within the next 10 years, but as these more tragic events have been occurring the sentiment was turning to one direction — having body-worn cameras.”
How do the police body cameras work?
Body cameras are:
- Small and worn by officers to record interactions with the public
- Can be attached to clothing, sunglasses or a helmet and go where the officer goes
- Produce video and audio recordings that can be saved on a storage device or uploaded to a web-based storage platform
- Some can even upload video while the officer is in the field
The Biloxi Police Department has used some type of body camera for its officers since 2013. Its body camera policy states officers are required to wear the cameras except when law enforcement actions are not required — like court and training.
Officers must record all contacts made as part of their official duties except when it is in the best interest of the department to stop recording and the officer can justify the action in writing. Instances such as officer safety or protecting the identity of a confidential informant would justify terminating the recording.
“It’s very difficult for an officer to go out without their body camera,” said Biloxi Police Chief John Miller. “They all love them.
“They go out with them roughly 9 out of 10 times.”
Why do police like the body cameras?
Miller said the video recorded by the cameras is good for resolving citizen complaints.
“It’s a big deal to get pulled over by a policeman,” he said. “(The citizen) can get lost in the perception.
“I had a lady who said an officer used a profanity and when we received the video — that didn’t happen. I don’t believe that lady was deceptive, she just got lost in the perception.”
Hattiesburg Capt. Branden McLemore said the use of body cameras by his department has dramatically decreased the number of citizen complaints:
- 2016: 91 citizen complaints
- 2017: 49 complaints
- 2018: 46 complaints
The Biloxi Police Department did not respond to a question about the number of complaints it’s had since implementing police body cameras.
What are the positives and negatives of police body cameras?
Stoughton said there are pros and cons to body cameras.
“I think anyone who is entirely positive about them is selling something and anyone who is entirely negative hasn’t thought enough about them,” he said.
Stoughton said there are three primary benefits of police body cameras:
- They build public trust and help police to be transparent and accountable
- They provide better information for internal investigations, court and training purposes
- They may improve police-community interactions
But Stoughton said the negative aspects depend on how law enforcement uses the video.
“If an agency wants to build public trust and then it refuses to share the video with anyone — then you’re going to undermine the public trust,” he said.
The Hattiesburg Police Department only discloses recordings in accordance with law enforcement needs or to comply with a public records request.
At the Biloxi Police Department, release of recordings may come through a public records request or — at the Director of Police’s approval — to outside law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s office or any legal entity representing the department.
Are police body cameras doing all they should?
A study by the federal Office of Justice Programs, involving more than 400 police officers in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, found officers wearing police body cameras generated significantly fewer complaints and use of force reports relative to control officers without cameras.
The police camera wearing officers also made more arrests and issued more citations than their non-wearing counterparts.
But a study for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department — one of the largest departments in the country — found no statistically significant differences in police use of force, number of citizen complaints or number of arrests for disorderly conduct for police officers who wore cameras compared to those who did not.
“We randomly assigned over 2,200 officers to wear body cameras,” said one of the study’s authors Anita Ravishankar in an email. “Essentially we found no detectable effect of the cameras.”
One conclusion of the study’s authors was that the D.C. force was so well-trained there was little for the police body cameras to improve upon. Even so, Ravishankar said it may be time to temper beliefs about body-worn cameras.
“Law enforcement agencies, (particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.) that are considering adopting (the cameras) should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology,” she said.
But Alan Thompson, University of Southern Mississippi associate professor of criminal justice, said police body cameras have their place and use.
“The video doesn’t lie,” he said. “It can be used to clear officers and for officers who are not well-intentioned — it can serve as a deterrent.
“This is a piece of equipment, not unlike a handgun, that could end up saving you a lot of headaches.”
Another study, cited by the National Institute of Justice, involved eight police departments in the United Kingdom and the United States. It found police body cameras resulted in no effect on police use of force and were associated with a statistically significant increase in assaults against officers.
How can agencies best take advantage of police body cameras?
Regardless of what the studies say, Stoughton predicts police body cameras are here to stay. He said departments need:
- Policies governing their use
- Training of officers on them
- Authorities who know how to interpret the videos
“In many places now — and in more places in the future — body cameras are going to be a standard piece of (police) equipment,” he said. “If an agency has body cameras and is not using them correctly, at best — they’re not helping themselves, and at worst — they’re hurting themselves and the community they serve.”