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’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’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’s, are devising pilot programs and setting policies governing both procedures for the cameras and the evidence they produce. The District’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.
Some thorny details need to be clarified before D.C. police go ahead with a pilot project. Chief among them is how and when the cameras are activated. If individual officers are allowed complete discretion, the cameras will be of little use; but if the cameras are rolling for an officer’s entire shift, problems will arise involving privacy and good policing. (Some informants will get cold feet if they know they’re being filmed, and victims of some crimes may be inhibited from providing testimony.)
The Police Complaints Board has recommended establishing a task force to set such policies — as well as ones related to storage, retention and access of the recordings and how to notify citizens that they are being recorded. The task force would consist of police officials, police union representatives, prosecutors, defense lawyers, civil liberties advocates and crime victims, among others. In general, the more that this footage can be gathered and put to use, the better.