The Pros & Cons of the DOJ’s Pilot Program Awarding Body Cameras To Police Agencies

On Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the launch of a $20 million pilot program which will award body cameras to police agencies across the country. The program signals an attempt to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Lynch’s press release follows the turmoil in Baltimore sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.

Prior to the announcement, body cameras had already garnered a lot of support due to the belief that utilizing them would ease distrust between the police and citizens who tend to be skeptical of police intentions and actions.

This Department of Justice (DOJ) pilot program seeks to provide 50 awards to law-enforcement agencies. Federal officials would purchase the body cameras and also provide training on how to use them, in addition to helping agencies develop tools to evaluate best practices. The DOJ said the program is part of President Obama’s proposal to invest $75 million, over a span of three years, to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for police agencies.

This was not an unexpected development, as the Obama administration had been advocating for body cameras as a way of improving policing in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

A statement on the DOJ’s website reads:

“’Body-worn camera technology is a valuable tool for improving police-citizen relationships,’ said Director Denise O’Donnell of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.  ‘BJA is committed to helping law enforcement agencies identify the safest and most effective methods for deploying this technology and addressing factors such as privacy, archiving and legal regulations surrounding its use.  BJA stands by to guide agencies through what can be a complex process toward more successful adoption of the technology.’”

Approximately one-third of the grants will be directed towards smaller law enforcement agencies. The grants require a 50/50 in-kind or cash match and are only allowed to be used to buy equipment. Applicants, however, have to develop a cogent plan for implementation of the body-worn cameras and a training policy before they can even purchase the cameras.  The long term costs of storing this information will fall on each local agency.

There are those with reservations, though, including some who initially supported the body cameras. Reason has noted that:

“…police officers have special rights when they’re faced with accusations of potentially criminal misconduct. In Baltimore, a police officer can wait for 10 days before having to answer questions from investigators, thanks to union rules.

We’re seeing similar potential problems with how law enforcement agencies may implement rules in how body camera footage will be used in investigations. Former Reason Editor Matthew Feeney, now at the Cato Institute, took note of part of the new policy proposed for the use of body cameras by the Los Angeles Police Department earlier this week. The LAPD’s body camera policies would allow officers in use of force incidents to review his or her own camera footage before being interviewed by investigators:

This proposal would provide officers with an opportunity that is not afforded to citizens accused of crimes: to view evidence against them prior to being interviewed by investigators. Police officers involved in a use-of-force incident should not be allowed to view their own body camera footage or the footage captured by colleagues’ body cameras before speaking to investigators. An officer involved in a use-of-force incident should give comments to investigators that have not been influenced by police body camera footage.”

Granting officers the ability to view body camera footage prior to being questioned by investigators is problematic because an officer’s statements may not necessarily reflect state of mind at the time of the incident. It gives the officer time to craft a narrative that fits the video and also allows officers the opportunity to scan the video for evidence that may help to exonerate them.

But, studies do indicate that the use of police body cameras produces outcomes in which ‘everyone behaves better.’ According to one study, performed by the DOJ, fewer incidents of the use of force and fewer complaints arose when police officers used these cameras.

In another study, Police Foundation Executive Fellow, Chief Tony Farrar evaluated the effect of body-worn video cameras on police’ use-of-force:

“This randomized controlled trial represents the first experimental evaluation of body-worn video cameras used in police patrol practices. Cameras were deployed to all patrol officers in the Rialto (CA) Police Department. Every police patrol shift during the 12-month period was assigned to experimental or control conditions.

Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers. The authors conclude:

‘The findings suggest more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.’”

Police departments are currently addressing the technological and legal issues, including rights of privacy, surrounding the use of body cameras. But, some departments have already begun using the technology. Officers in Ferguson, MO began wearing cameras after the controversial death of Michael Brown and in December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that LAPD officers would be outfitted with 7,000 body cameras in an effort to improve transparency in policing.