It's Still Not Clear How Many Police Departments Actually Use Body Cameras

Video footage is integral to holding police accountable for brutality, but there’s no data on how many cameras are in use.

Jul 30 2015, 3:26pm

Sam DuBose is shown in bodycam footage just before being shot. Image: University of Cincinnati Campus Police/AP

As calls for police accountability grow louder than ever, evidence points to cameras as a solution, but there's one problem: it's not clear how many departments are using them.

The issue was brought into focus once again when a Cincinnati police officer was indicted Wednesday on murder charges after a body camera he was wearing captured footage of him shooting driver Sam DuBose point-blank during a routine traffic stop. The video directly contradicts the version of events Officer Ray Tensing officially reported, including his claims he shot DuBose for fear of his life after being dragged by his car.

"He purposefully killed him," Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters said in a press conference addressing the incident. Deters called the video evidence "invaluable" in charging the officer.

"I think it's a good idea for police to wear [cameras]," Deters said. "Nine times out of 10 it clears them of wrongdoing. In this case, it led to an indictment for murder."

Deters has a point: there is a growing body of evidence that suggest cameras curtail police misconduct. One study showed use-of-force incidents by officers fell by 59 percent over the course of a year for officers who wore body cameras. In San Diego, use of "personal body weapon" force dropped 46.5 percent and public complaints fell more than 40 percent after officers started wearing cameras.

But according to the Police Executive Research Forum, there is no comprehensive nationwide list of police agencies that are using body cameras. Numbers cited by the ACLU a year ago suggested 25 to 30 percent of the 17,000 police agencies in the US are currently implementing body cameras, and 80 percent are evaluating the technology, but ACLU advocacy and policy counsel Chad Marlow told me that's a very rough estimate.

"You can't even speak of what the effect of body cameras is because the policies are so all over the place," Marlow said. "The cameras can be implemented on the state level or department level, or by pilot programs, so its almost impossible to keep track the technology on a department-by-department basis."

Surveying who is using cameras is important, he added, because how they are used determines how effective they are in curbing police brutality. Varying policies on reporting and access to video can reduce the effectiveness of cameras as a means to rein in the issue. Not to mention, there are a number of incidents in which officers turned their body cams off during an incident of alleged misconduct, rendering them useless.

"Whether police body cameras are a positive factor or a negative factor has a lot to do with the policies behind them," he said. "Some policies are good and some are bad, the effect of the body cameras themselves is going to track the policies that govern them."

For example, Los Angeles, South Carolina, and many other state and local governments are in the process of passing laws barring body camera footage from being shared with the public, which can have a big effect on the extent to which cameras deter bad officer behavior.

"If officers have to wear the body cameras, but the footage is hidden away, it doesn't promote good behavior," Marlow said. "If police cameras capture bad behavior, and police know that, that footage may never see the light of day."

A map of legislation regarding access to body cameras under public records laws. Credit: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Marlow said South Carolina's law is also troubling in that it is being developed by a commission comprised almost entirely of law enforcement officials. Alternatively, a body camera law currently proposed in Louisiana would be developed by a commission of a variety of individuals, including members of the NAACP, which Marlow said would likely create a more balanced approach that doesn't cater disproportionately to police interests.

Many departments that require officers to wear body cameras are implementing policies that would allow officers to watch footage of arrests and other incidents before filing official reports of what happened. This would decrease effectiveness in cases like the shooting in Cincinnati, in which footage clearly contradicts Tensing's official account, or the killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina. In that incident, the officer claimed Scott took his taser, and was only proven wrong when a bystander video showed him planting the taser next to Scott's body after the incident.

"If the officer had seen the footage before reporting the incident, he would have known not to lie," Marlow said. This would allow dishonest officers to tailor their stories to what they know they can't get out of. On the other hand, it may force them to be more honest from the beginning.

"Body cameras can in certain circumstances not only be evidence producing, but force officers to be more honest in their reporting because they know it can be contradicted by a video," Marlow added.

Of course, body and dashboard cameras do not guarantee accountability in cases of police misconduct. The police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice has yet to face prosecution more than eight months later, despite the fact the entire incident was caught on tape, and a grand jury declined to indict the officers who choked Eric Garner to death in New York as an onlooker taped the incident.

"Police body cameras are being touted as a way to improve transparency and accountability with police forces in this country, but the truth is we will only accomplish that where good policies are in place," Marlow said.

As efforts for police transparency continue, including a $20 million body camera pilot program from the Department of Justice, regulators need more insight into just how body cam technology is deployed, used, and controlled.

"In some ways, requiring all officers to wear cameras is helpful in terms of creating uniformity, but on the other hand, what kind of uniformity is it?" Marlow said. "Without uniformly good policies governing body cameras, we are going to end up having a very hit-and-miss experience with body cameras in this country. I think we will find the devil is definitely in the details."