There is strong evidence that the presence of videocameras can both blunt some of the sharp edges of human interaction and improve behavior — the counterexample of “Girls Gone Wild” notwithstanding. Having successfully deployed cameras in patrol cars, a number of police departments, including the District of Columbia’s, are now studying whether body-mounted minicams — attached to an officer’s lapel, for instance — could reduce officer (or civilian) misconduct, among a range of benefits. With sound safeguards, it’s a smart idea.
A study submitted this month by the District of Columbia’s Police Complaints Board cited the example of the Rialto, Calif., police department, which measured the use of force by officers wearing cameras against a control group of officers who didn’t wear them. The camera-wearing officers were involved in dramatically fewer incidents involving the use of their batons, pepper spray, stun guns or firearms.
Behavioral changes were so striking — both in the officers and in citizens they encountered — that complaints against the cops wearing cameras declined by nearly 90 percent.
Mindful of that success, some big departments, including Los Angeles’, are devising pilot programs and setting policies governing both procedures for the cameras and the evidence they produce. The District of Columbia’s police department says that equipping its officers with such cameras is a priority.
In particular, the brass hopes to cut down on complaints from citizens about officers issuing threats and bad tickets, making unjustified traffic stops and using abusive or foul language. Together, those amount to more than a third of all complaints against the D.C. police. In addition, advocates of on-body cameras say they could reduce the frequency of excessive or unnecessary force, unlawful searches and frisks, unlawful arrests and officers refusing to show their ID upon request.
The American Civil Liberties Union and like-minded groups favor the use of on-body cameras, with some caveats, believing that they can provide useful protections against poor police conduct. At the same time, many police officials think audiovisual evidence can safeguard officers against unjust accusations.