Police wearing body cameras not a simple fix
Effective guidelines are needed,
The tragic death of George Floyd, as well as the recent passing of Chantel Moore, has left Canada considering the use of body-worn cameras (BWCS) in police departments across the country to increase officer accountability and transparency.
BWCS are perceived as a solution to issues such as police brutality and excessive use of force, and as an aid in improving police-community relations and encounters. However, despite some research reinforcing these hypotheses, there is also plenty of research suggesting that BWCS fail to deliver these promises.
Scholars and various pilot projects in Canadian police departments saw no significant change in police use of force, police professionalism, views of police legitimacy, or satisfaction with police-citizen encounters when officers were equipped with BWCS.
The problem here is that not all camera systems are created equally, nor are the guidelines for their use the same across all departments. Some cameras have a short battery life, some require manual operation, others need very expensive storage, and sometimes videos are not made available to the public.
Research on police BWCS suggests that this technology is not guaranteed to improve much of what we wish it would, but it can.
Given this, we are faced with a rather daunting question: what can police departments do to ensure that BWCS are effective, beneficial, and safe for both citizens and officers?
ACTIVATION AND DEACTIVATION
Police departments typically offer some level of officer discretion in the activation and deactivation of their BWC. Officer discretion and the ability to turn off the cameras is important for two reasons.
Firstly, due to the high cost of footage storage, it’s not feasible for these cameras to run continuously.
Secondly, cameras should be turned off to avoid privacy violations such as the recording of innocent bystanders and filming of sensitive populations (imagine victims of rape and abuse being recorded without consent), as this can have negative effects on police-community relations. These privacy concerns also extend to officers, as the recording of coworkers simply shooting the breeze may cause tension within departments.
However, an officer’s ability to turn off a BWC at their discretion without proper guidelines cannot reduce poor policing or increase accountability, as police can pause the recording to commit abuses without the risk of being filmed. Placing the control of deactivation with police officers creates a situation where the organization meant to be held accountable holds the power to prevent recordings from occurring or being shared after the incident.
Failure to record may be the result of accident, stress, or deliberate misconduct, while an affirmative decision to film may be to humiliate or evade the privacy of sensitive subjects in intimate situations.
RELEASE OF FOOTAGE
Public disclosure of footage containing incidents of misconduct or brutality would be a step toward increasing police transparency and accountability. However, releasing BWC footage to the public or news media can be problematic when it contains images and audio of innocent bystanders, sensitive crime victims, or is taken within a person’s home.
The misuse of public disclosure allows for not only privacy threats, but can seriously affect the lives of those who exhibit problematic behaviour. For example, dash cam footage on police cruisers has been circulated online, particularity of intoxicated and troubled individuals, for no other reason than to demoralize them.
These privacy risks are significant, even if they do not occur often, as even the possibility of retaliation may produce an ongoing fear for those recorded.
Evidence suggests that the development and implementation of proper BWC policies within a department is a necessary precondition for achieving the benefits that this technology can provide.
Guidelines for the use of BWCS must be carefully considered and developed, while keeping these two issues in mind, as they affect the safety and privacy of both officers and citizens, as well as the accountability and transparency of police that we desire.
Shayla Batty is a research assistant at the University of Saskatchewan.