Putting Body Cameras On Cops Won't Fix Misconduct, But It's A Good Start

from the the-other-option-is-business-as-usual,-which-is-completely-unacceptable dept

Prompted by the fatal shooting of Ferguson resident Mike Brown, a We the People petition asking the federal government to require body cameras for all law enforcement officers has roared past the 100,000 signature threshold required for a White House response. (Theoretically.)

The petition asks for the creation of the “Mike Brown Law,” which would mandate the use of body cameras and ensure agencies are supplied with funding needed to comply. The usual caveat about bad laws being named after deceased persons aside, the use of body cameras by police officers is nearing inevitability, what with police misconduct now being a mainstream media topic.

It’s not a complete solution, but it is a very valuable addition. Dash cams, which have been in use for years, only capture a small percentage of interactions with civilians. While the use of body cameras will prompt new privacy concerns, the presence of the unblinking eye has been shown to make both police and the public behave better.

The problems with body cameras are both human and technological. Currently, almost every camera system is controlled by police officers. Guidance on what does and doesn’t need to be recorded isn’t always clear. What may seem to be a deliberate effort to conceal something may just be an actual malfunction. And, like any other system meant to create greater accountability, it can be gamed.

In New Orleans, Armand Bennet, 26, was shot in the forehead during a traffic stop by New Orleans police officer Lisa Lewis. However, the police department did not reveal until much later that Lewis turned off her body camera just before shooting Bennett. Bennett survived and has now been charged under prior warrants for his arrest. It also reviewed that Lewis had had a prior run in with Bennet who escaped about a week earlier.

At first glance, it has all the appearance of a deliberate coverup. But there could be dozens of legitimate reasons this encounter wasn’t recorded.

The obvious reaction is that she turned it off to conceal the fact that she was about to plug Bennet in the forehead in a moment, and had the presence to do so without creating a conclusive record. But we easily see that because of what happened afterward. Post hoc rationalizations are easily deconstructed.

Perhaps she turned it off when she thought the confrontation was over. Perhaps she turned it off by accident. Perhaps she desperately wishes now she had kept it on, to prove Bennet took some action to justify her shooting him in the forehead. Or, as appears most likely, perhaps she turned it off so that there would be no video of what she was about to do.

This solution won’t — and can’t — solve everything. Beyond the actions of police officers, there’s the technology itself, which is far from perfect. Unfortunately, efforts to improve are being hamstrung by those most resistant to police officers being watched.

When an officer presses record, the camera saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment, but not the audio. The manufacturer designed the buffer to protect the privacy of police officers — and to appeal to resistant police unions — but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident.

Even a more-complete version of the events (compared to gathering eyewitness statements and weighing those against police reports) may still be missing crucial evidence, thanks to the efforts of police unions. As we’ve noted here earlier, legislators and government officials are becoming more receptive to the use of body cameras. Those raising the loudest objections are the erstwhile mouthpieces of the officers themselves.

The mayor of Miami-Dade sees the potential benefits of body cameras.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez is calling for hundreds of the county’s police officers to be equipped with video cameras, weeks after after a police involved shooting in the Midwest triggered days of violence.

As national outrage about alleged police misconduct in Ferguson, Mo. continues, Giménez is pushing to make body cameras mandatory for all county patrol officers. His proposed budget is calling for 500 cameras, which would cover about half of Miami-Dade’s patrol force.

“The body cam is a way to assure that there’s confidence in the police department, that if they had been wearing a body cam, say, in the incident that happened in Missouri, there would be no debate as to what exactly happened,” said Giménez…

Next year’s Miami-Dade County budget calls for $1 million for the body cameras, with an additional $400,000 in operating cost and for the data storage required.

But Miami-Dade’s police union wants none of it.

In a written grievance filed with the county’s police chief, a union lawyer wrote that wearing the cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations …”

The one-button operation of most cameras would seem to be something most officers will swiftly become accustomed to, rather than the huge impediment the police union portrays it as. But according to the union, nearly anything at all — even a quick tap of the “RECORD” button — could mean the difference between life and death (of police officers, that is…).

[T]he Miami-Dade police union [also] cited the distraction caused by officers having to activate the camera before approaching a traffic stop or potential arrest. “As anyone with knowledge of police training and tactics knows, if an officer hesitates for even a second in a life threatening situation, it can cost that officer his or her life, and/or put the lives of others at risk,” the complaint reads.

I don’t think anyone believes this hyperbole, not even the unions themselves. The only reason they’re against body cameras is because they firmly believe police officers shouldn’t be held accountable for their misconduct. They completely ignore the results shown by law enforcement agencies that have put body cameras into use — that they reduce both the use of excessive force and allegations of police misconduct.

Body cameras aren’t a cure-all, but they’re much more beneficial than resistant police officers and unions give them credit for. It’s the direction our nation’s law enforcement agencies need to be headed. It’s ridiculous that we’re still almost wholly reliant on something as malleable as police statements and eyewitness interviews. A camera isn’t completely neutral, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’re normally given to work with.

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Comments on “Putting Body Cameras On Cops Won't Fix Misconduct, But It's A Good Start”

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mcherm (profile) says:

Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

Seriously, just record ALL audio and video for the entire time that the uniformed officer is on duty. The chips needed to store this weigh just a few grams. We could save the records for 1 week, with automatic holds on anything that the officer flags as important, as well as in response to any citizen complaint or request. Then there’s no pesky button push to distract the officer … or for the officer to forget.

If you really think it is necessary, a button press to SUPPRESS the recording might be acceptable, for when an officer is using the restroom, intimidating a witness, or engaging in any other action requiring privacy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

Recording while they are on duty without an off button would solve most of the privacy issues, as it would produce so much footage that only incidents would be reviewed. Also, at least for a male officer, the rest room is not a problem, as the camera would be looking at the wall.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

This. If the officer is able to easily turn the camera on and off, it removes most of the benefit of the camera.

Before people comment saying things like “what about going to the bathroom”, I have an answer to that as well — make the camera an integral part of the cops’ holster. When the cop is doing something not job-related, he can remove his gun for privacy.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

I was thinking make the camera start recording automatically whenever they remove a weapon from it’s holster (pepper spray, baton, gun, etc.) Seems like that would be a time when it should HAVE to record and any other time, it could be a record button they press.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

I’m very fond of this idea, if implemented correctly. Correctly means no physical switch should be involved. Maybe something like this: every offensive and defensive piece of equipment gets an RFID chip. When the belt notices one of the tagged items is no longer nearby, or if the cop uses the radio for any reason, the recording begins. The recording ends 30 minutes after the item is replaced or the radio is no longer being used.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

I’d add gps location to the camera and honestly that suppress button it not really needed. The ‘flag’ button is a must though, it would actually help people screening the camera to skip the toilet parts. If needed the camera can be covered when going to the toilet and it wouldn’t raise any suspicion since the image would show the cop, you know, entering the place. Besides covering the camera would also respect privacy of other people using it.

Besides, the content should be secured so it cannot be deleted or accessed easily so there wouldn’t be any privacy concern (unless, of course, the cop misbehave then the contents of the camera would be verified but to a very narrow time frame).

Thinking about it the cops would still have more privacy than most Americans since the NSA has no limitations in digging all the data regardless of “flags”.

LduN (profile) says:

Re: Button Press Too Hard? Try This One Easy Fix!

Or, as a space saving initiative, store the past 10 minutes at 30/60FPS 720p quality, and the the rest save it as the standard security footage (10 fps @720p for quality?) even at 10FPS there should be enough to see pretty much everything that can have happened, just be a bit jittery, but saving 66-84% ish of the storage space

Blaine (profile) says:

Auto Record

Put a remote switch on all of their other gear. Pull a pistol, tazer, beating stick, bear mace, handcuffs or anything else from the utility belt and it auto triggers the recording including the 30 seconds of video AND AUDIO.

If the situation requires one of these ‘tools’ it should be recorded. No off switch while a ‘tool’ is out of it’s holster.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

A solution to that would be to legislate that a policeman does not have the powers of a constable (IIRC the US term is something like “sworn officer”) unless they can present video footage of their actions while exercising those powers and any preceding events which are necessary to justify their actions. Additional rules should specify that the video must identify the officer concerned, the time, and the GPS coordinates and direction of the camera.

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If there’s no recording of your job for the day, you don’t get paid for the day!!! There should be Video and Audio. It works both ways for Protection, for both the Police and the person he/she is going after.

you end the whole He said, she said thing. Whatever happened in Ferguson this guy WAS a criminal. Why do Blacks have a cop a attitude? A Police officer tells you to get off the street, you don’t go off. This guy got shot, Oh let the Criminal justice system work! If you want to PEACEFULLY protest, that’s your right. You start acting like a thug and attach to police, throw molotov cocktail, break into buildings, and burn businesses down, what the F did they do??? You’re burning down your own Neighborhood!!! Your butt should be thrown in JAIL.

So what if the police have their Military stuff. If you’re not doing anything wrong, nothing will happen. You can also thank OBAMA for all that hardware. You can hear it from his own words how there’s should be a Civilian force just as powerful as the Military!!! What, you just voted for the guy because he was black? Here’s a clip of it!



Like other places, Property values will take a dump! I sure wouldn’t want to live in this town! Why would anyone rebuild their business? Those left will put the Bars in the Windows, and the town will really go into the dumps. People buying up the places will be slum lords.

I can point out a couple cases of a BLACK Cop shooting shooting a Un-Armed white person!!! One was shoot for saying the N word to the Black cop!!! Was there Riets in the streets for that? Was there even much in the news about it? NO. Did everyone just go sand say the Cop was guilty without knowing any of the facts? One of those persons was also a Unarmed VET!!!! The case is far, far worse!!! Here’s some links!!!



With Ferguson, the COP is already guilty. Anything other then that and everyone will be in the streets rioting once again!!! Facts don’t matter, and haven’t from the start. I wasn’t there, I have no idea what happened. Only a few people do. All this Vandalizing is a joke! What does doing that do? Steeling stuff proves what? Oh wait, you’re a criminal thug. You’re really just there to cause trouble. The case really doesn’t matter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Even so, the police officer in question should be arrested for negligent homicide at least. Because, regardless of the facts, he killed a person whilst on duty. And that should be investigated.

Who watches the watchmen? We do. And we, as a populace, have forgottent hat we need to watch for actual wrongdoing, instead going after perceived wrongdoings.

Trevor says:


Camera connected to the car and sidearm. If lights are activated, the camera turns on and starts recording. If no lights are turned on, Camera turns on when tazer/sidearm are removed from holster.

After camera is activated, it must be manually turned off.

Once camera is turned off, the footage is transmitted to an offsite location overseen by civilian department / Internal Affairs, out of the reach of the department of the officer. If the footage is tampered with before transmission, the footage is automatically transmitted.

Need storage for all those videos? I know of a fancy new facility in the heart of Utah that might be able to handle the load. (Granted, in my fairy tale that are these procedures, the NSA is no longer in control of said facility).

If footage is deemed to have been manipulated or the camera turned off too early, the Officer loses a paycheck AUTOMATICALLY, before review of the content is conducted.

If the officer is deemed by the overseeing agency to have broken procedure/law/someone’s face without cause, the settlement is paid by the police union. That officer is then referred to Internal Affairs for reprimanding.


Zonker says:

[T]he Miami-Dade police union [also] cited the distraction caused by officers having to activate the camera before approaching a traffic stop or potential arrest. “As anyone with knowledge of police training and tactics knows, if an officer hesitates for even a second in a life threatening situation, it can cost that officer his or her life, and/or put the lives of others at risk,” the complaint reads.

While we’re at it, don’t require the officer to put the car in park when pulling someone over as that extra second could put their lives in danger.

Don’t allow them to call for backup, that’s even more valuable seconds lost.

Don’t allow them to run the plates either, more seconds lost.

Heck, don’t even bother finding evidence that a crime has been or may be committed, put those precious seconds to good use arresting or shooting the civvie for your protection and find a crime to charge them with later.

Remember, the most important goal of law enforcement is to protect the life of the officer!

— The Miami-Dade Police Union

Whatever (profile) says:

The story makes some great points, and shows that there is a need for improvements in the technology.

Quite simply, the camera should ALWAYS be on, no matter what. Inside the station, they could be treated like guns, you take them off and lock them up in a safe place.

Moreover, the camera’s should automatically be recording and downloading to a black box or network device that the officer cannot control or tamper with. Set up a wireless data network, and upload the videos realtime to a backup server. Make it so that everything the officer does outside of the station is recorded, noted, and kept a copy of – no matter what they do.

Officers should know and understand that the camera is on all of the time, end of discussion.

Now, the inverse of that is the public will know that the camera (and microphone) are on all of the time, and that everything they say or do in the presence of an officer will be recorded. All those stories about cases of police violence dropping when the camera are installed very likely means that the members of the public who would choose to fight and then yell “police brutality” and file a false report are no longer doing it – they know their actions are recorded.

Giving the officer the responsibility and the ability to turn the camera on and off is just begging for abuses.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One small but important addition: Have the ‘black box’ in the control and possession of a group other than the police, or perhaps have two copies of all the video data, one in police custody, one in the custody of a third party with no affiliation or connection to the police, so that if any tampering occurs it can be quickly found out.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I agree with you here, strongly at that. At bare minimum, it should be treated as evidence (at all times) and retained perhaps by the DA’s office or perhaps even an independent non-judicial group. In fact, I could see a really good case where having a state or federal agency responsible for retain this stuff would be a good idea.

For what’s it’s worth, I also think that police cruisers should be GPS tracked at all times, and the status of lights, sirens, and so on by data logged as well. Sync it all up with a radio log of police dispatch, and you have a pretty good indication of all that was going on, held in a manner that cannot be tampered with easily.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’d go with the independent, non-judicial group myself, as I seem to remember seeing a couple of cases where the DA was part of the problem, providing an extra layer of protection for the cops from accountability, so having the data in their custody wouldn’t be much of an improvement over having it in police custody.

Treating it as evidence as long as they have it sounds good too, make tampering or destruction of the data a punishable crime.

As far as duration of keeping that ‘evidence’, I think a week, maybe a month tops would do it, unless there was a complaint filed that involved the recorded data, at which point it would be kept until everything was settled.

At first I thought that the GPS tracking might be a bit overkill, and then I remembered how fond police are of automatic plate tracking, and any worry was quickly dismissed.

If they insist that tracking the plates of regular people is nothing to be concerned about, I see no problem if their cars, and the status related to them, was also tracked.

mike_m (profile) says:

reasons not to record 24/7

As a retired cop here are a few things off the top of my head that probably shouldn’t be recorded.

Sex in cars. You will have to trust the government to do the right thing with a library of thousands of blow job videos.

They will also have a record of adultery, filthy homes and drunks acting like drunks.

The days of dumping a bag of weed or a six pack of beer and telling kids to get lost would be over.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

A good cop doing his job properly would want it to be recorded. I remember the classic Judge Judy episode where this spoiled brat of a cop’s daughter got stopped for speeding and called her dad on her cell phone thinking he would get her out of the ticket. When the cop simply told her he would not take the call and proceeded to write her a ticket she made accusations that he had been rude and abusive. Regardless of how unfounded, this meant he had an undeserved report in his jacket. The girl showed up to court with her father and like the cop, Judge Judy told him that he had nothing to do with the case and asked him to step back. The brat spoke first and repeated her accusations of how horribly she had been treated. When it was the cop’s turn the first thing he said was “Your honor I have a recording of the entire stop”. You could almost smell the girl crapping her pants through the TV! The recording proved the cop was never disrespectful and did everything by the book. Judge Judy awarded the cop the maximum and issued a court order that the girl write a letter of apology to his captain requesting the complaint be removed from his file. Judy also had some very choice words for her father.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

OK, court order is incorrect. Just an order that is civilly enforceable. I’m guessing most people obey because they sign away all rights to contest her decisions. I doubt any judge would consider an appeal after it has been waived. She may be retired as a judge but she is more than qualified. She had nearly 30 years experience as a prosecutor and a judge.

GEMont (profile) says:


Police Body Cams should automatically trigger upon the cop leaving the vehicle, for all patrol-car based cops. The triggering should also alert the PD HQ and show a broadcast of the event on a monitor there.

Pedestrian Cops should have their cameras triggered as soon as they radio in their intentions to investigate something, and the feed should be displayed at PD HQ as well.

In both cases, there should be a manual ON switch to allow a cop to record any event at any time and all such records are again broadcast directly to a monitor at PD HQ.

Turning the camera OFF should signal a report to the PD HQ that a unit has been disabled. PD HQ has the ability to turn any unit On or OFF remotely.

All such body cameras and HQ monitor units should have a 4 terabyte hard drive minimum.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Suggestions

I was thinking more along the lines of redundancy than integrity, but you’re likely correct in that an outside public watchdog would be needed, considering the levels they have already reached in their dereliction of duty and destruction of evidence.

I saw the PD HQ connection as a back-up, since cops generally keep their HQ informed of their whereabouts and their actions anyway, simply for their own safety.

If a cop reports his/her intended actions to HQ, then both the body cam and the HQ monitor system record the events as they unfold. Losing BOTH copies should alert an honest court to intentional obfuscation.

Of course, if a cop turns the camera off, all you have is the report that the cop turned the camera off. I suppose the cameras could be manufactured without an OFF button to prevent this. But then the cops will simply smash them against a wall, or crush them underfoot, unless they’re made to extremely damage resistant standards.

Of course, truly criminal cops who use their badge as a pry-bar to extort money, drugs and services from people and steal shit, won’t report their intentions to HQ anyway, so only those in cruisers would be affected by the automatic on switch when leaving the vehicle.

Lots of “IF/THEN”s of course, that only time and experience might solve….

Perhaps the best way to get cops to use these devices properly, is to start a TV show called COPCAM, and air the best “positive” clips 5 days a week in a one hour show, naming and profiling the individual cops whose clips are aired.

If we can’t trust their integrity, perhaps we can use their lust for notoriety and fame.

DNY (profile) says:

On duty = camera on, excecptions for undercover work by warrant only

I’ve thought about this a bit since the Ferguson incident, and without having read the Techdirt article on the subject came to the conclusion that we finally have a solution to Plato’s problem of who guards the guardians — we all do.

All LEOs should have body cameras with sound which are on whenever the officer is on duty, the sole exception being undercover operatives whose lack of a camera and recording device has been approved by a judge. All the niceties about on/off switches can be left aside — let the cops turn them on and off whenever, but…

Put the on-off switch somewhere where suspects cannot access it in the course of an arrest and implement a few of the suggestions up thread for procedural reforms to give the camera requirement teeth:

I’d thought of scott13’s suggestion of camera/sound recorder off — citizen’s word trumps the cop’s word in testimony about police conduct — but I also like his docking the office a day’s pay for leaving the camera off while on duty, and I also like the suggestion posted by Anonymous Coward at #9 (though with my exception for court-authorized undercover work): a police officer without his or her camera/sound recorder loses police powers.

And, have an always-on GPS tracker as part of every non-undercover cop’s kit.

I’m not sure where the recordings and GPS records should be stored. Maybe each of the several states can create an Office of Good Police Conduct, attached to whatever agency deals with civil rights, rather than any police agency, to run servers for the purpose and handle FOIA requests for footage and GPS records relevant to particular incidents — the Feds can do likewise for the records generated by Federal LEOs.

Javi says:

Miami police officers are one of the many of the most corrupt and unprofessional officers around. They trample all over your rights on a good day. On a bad day they will kick your ass and falsely imprison you simply because you try to exercise your rights to not be searched without probable cause. They routinely get caught AND even convicted of outrageous acts and crimes. The best part is that, even when convicted, they often get no more then a slap on the wrist. Sometimes they even get suspended WITH pay AFTER A CONVICTION for multiple instances of pulling over pretty women and forcing them to perform sexual acts under threat of bogus legal actions taken against the women. What I’m getting at is…Yea, we need these criminals under control and putting cameras on them is the best idea yet.

I must mention that out of the many there are some great officers that are professional and do protect and serve the public. Unfortunately, they are the minority in the, otherwise, wonderful city of Miami.

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