Members of Congress call for police bodycams in wake of Ferguson


Police and protesters crash in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

While calm appears to be returning to the St. Louis suburb that was torn apart as police and protesters clashed following the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, members of Congress are calling for an expansion of police use of body cameras.

“As the investigation into the death of Michael Brown illustrates, the circumstances of an officer-involved shooting can arouse the strongest passions in a community and breed an atmosphere of profound distrust," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a press release about a letter he is sending to the Department of Justice urging the agency to fund body cameras for local police departments.

"Having a video record of events not only deters the use of excessive force, but it also helps dispute or demonstrate claims of police brutality – in either case it improves community confidence in a just result," he said. Other members of Congress have made similar calls -- including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who on Monday suggested a mandate requiring police departments have body cams before they are given federal funding.

Citizens have increasingly turned the digital eyes of their own mobile devices on police -- sometimes capturing questionable tactics. And many police departments use "dashcams" in cars to record routine traffic stops. But the technology to capture other interactions between officers and the public is also available. In fact, it can be strapped directly to their uniforms in the form of body cams.

There is evidence that using the cameras can considerably improve the accountability of local on-duty officers -- providing a record that both the public and officers can fall back on if accounts differ from the one in an official report.  The police department in Rialto, Calif., started wearing cameras in February 2012, and found that the volume of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent versus the previous year, while officer use of force fell by nearly 60 percent, according to the New York Times.

There are significant privacy concerns that come along with deployment of police body cams. Civil liberties groups have raised questions about the length of time that recording from the devices would be retained and what level of control officers might exert over when the camera is turned on and off. In the future, as the technology advances, even more concerns are likely to be raised about facial recognition and location-tracking capabilities.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, which typically raises alarm bells over practices with the potential to infringe on privacy, thinks the pros outweigh the cons. "Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers," the group said while endorsing the use of the devices in 2013.

 

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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