| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Among law enforcement departments that have not yet gone all-in with a mandate that officers wear personal cameras to record what they encounter in the line of duty – and there are quite of few of them in Southwest Florida – the prevailing concern has been that this will turn out to be one of those expensive commitments that seemed like a good idea at the time.
The role of citizen videographers armed with cell phones in changing America’s mind about the prevalence of overly aggressive, and at times downright cruel, policing has magnified the voices calling for universal body-worn cameras in public safety operations. Advocates say that merely implementing a camera policy immediately enhances transparency, accountability and trust.
And yet, since widespread adoption of body-worn cameras starting in 2013, the data on whether they actually do promote law, order and public goodwill have been difficult to parse. Those skeptical about whether this community policing tool is worth the high cost of wielding it well have had plenty of evidence to conclude that its benefits are in the eye of the beholder.
As Herald-Tribune reporter Timothy Fanning wrote last week, the City of Sarasota is one municipality that has been philosophically inclined to embrace the technology, but its wait-and-see approach has taken on a very close appearance to reluctance. Cameras purchased in 2014 are now worthless, and commissioners will discuss in October whether to embark on a fresh vendor contract for a more elaborate camera program.
Aside from the considerable cost of the equipment itself, the city would hire an operations manager, a public records coordinator, and a technician to maintain the cameras and protect the identities of individuals who happen to appear in the videos. The last two issues, public access and privacy, have been stumbling blocks for some agencies that failed to think through what happens to those images captured every day.
According to Pew’s Stateline News Service, the city of Washington, D.C., rewrote its policies last year in response to a four-hour roundtable where citizens expressed criticism of its camera program.
“The main concern was the public’s restricted access to video,” the report said. “A person in a video can view the footage at a police station. Others may file open records requests, but the department can withhold or redact video being used for an investigation. Within a week of the hearing, the council made a change: an emergency resolution to allow close relatives of a person killed by police to access footage of the incident.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Institute of Justice – the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department – are in favor of body-worn cameras and have issued guidelines for their use. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also backs the concept but prefers letting individual agencies set policies tailored for their communities.
Findings on whether outfitting officers with cameras actually limit use-of-force incidents have been mixed. But the NIJ says that many early studies were poorly done, with the predictable result that researchers found what they were looking for. The institute cited as definitive a large, randomized trial in 2016, indicating that officers should be uniformly required to have the camera running whenever they answer a call for help.
“The researchers found decreases in use-of-force incidents when officers activated their cameras upon arrival at the scene,” the report said. “Alternatively, use-of-force incidents by officers with body-worn cameras increased when the officers had the discretion to determine when to activate their cameras.”
Observations like this strongly suggest that while the optics for any commitment to police cameras may be highly beneficial, the expense is justified only when every detail of the policy has been carefully vetted – and both officers and citizens understand what the cameras can and cannot see.
The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board