Body cameras worn by police officers have changed the landscape in the profession of law enforcement. However, the subject has remained controversial, which is arguably the reason why some departments are just beginning to embrace the gear. In a news article by Pruitt-Young (2021), federal officers have now been required by the Justice Department to wear body cameras despite current regulations not applying to them. Additionally, efforts are being ramped up to ensure all officers wear body cameras. The effects of body cameras on the police and public remains a topic not fully explored. The focus of this paper will be to present the perspectives of both the public and officers regarding the use of body cameras. Additionally, a position will be established based on the arguments developed.
The general public should probably celebrate the new revolutions among the police departments requiring officers to wear body cameras because of the many pros associated with the requirement. The first pro is that with video evidence, cases such as police brutality can decrease because the officers will be forced to act prudently. Many people perceive this move as the key to police reform, which should serve the public’s best interests. According to Norwood (2020), early concerns and calls for the use of body cameras revolved around the use of excessive force by police officers. Most importantly, racial bias has been a major concern where police brutality and the killing of unarmed black Americans have recently taken center stage.
Racially biased policing is also a subject that has attracted scholarly attention where such activities as stop-and-frisk and ‘predatory policing’ have been explored (Murphy, 2018). The movement behind body-worn cameras among the police has targeted such practices with the hope that the officers will stop this behavior or at least the rogue police persons can be prosecuted, which is another pro for the public. From the general public’s perspective, body cameras are a means to combat deliberate racial profiling and other forms of racially biased policing.
Police accountability is another controversial topic within the context of body cameras. Many scholars and activists have explored both sides of the issue, with some believing that these devices should enhance the integrity and authenticity of the evidence. According to Wood (2017), even better measures should be implemented, including allowing the storage, maintenance, and access of the video evidence to be done by third parties where compromise can be minimal. Today, many communities across the United States are distrustful of the police due to the many incidences of excessive force. Video evidence is often better than eyewitnesses and several cases have proven this point. A good example given by Gonzales and Cochran (2017) is the case of Scott v. Harris where a dashcam video was used to determine a case. Similarly, body cameras can record all officer-citizen encounters and the video evidence used to determine cases of excessive force. With the public perceived as the victims of police brutality, there are hardly any cons from their perspective.
Police Officers’ Perspective
There could be opposing perspectives to the issue of body cameras for police officers. Firstly, many would feel that body cameras are just a form of surveillance, which could hinder them from performing their duties. Second, there could be an argument that the body cameras could also offer security for the officers. The second line of thought is particularly interesting, especially considering that the general public feels that these gadgets could be the key to police reform. Police departments are often under pressure to implement measures to enhance accountability for the police personnel. Therefore, the body cameras could convince the general public that all police-citizen encounters are recorded and that the public should no longer fear or distrust the police. However, some people still feel that body cameras do not necessarily make the officers accountable. For example, Norwood (2020) feels that the fact that the police can choose when to activate and deactivate the gadgets means they still have control of what they report regarding the incidences. Therefore, the police should see the body cameras as a form of self-protection from malicious encounters with the public.
The perspective that body cameras could be beneficial for police officers is based on the current trends where police incidences are recorded and by onlookers and used against the officers. In such cases, the videos are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’ meaning that the officers have no control over how incidences are narrated. The term “copwatching” has been used by Fan (2019) to illustrate the fact that the probability of officers being recorded has never been higher in human history. Today, over 91% of people in the United States own smartphones with cameras that are often aimed at the police as a means of protest, create a proof, check power, or even satisfy their curiosity (Fan, 2019). The fact that the videos can be edited and posted on social media means that there are increasing possibilities that the officers’ actions can be targeted to create a negative image of the police. Such instances can be rampant in those communities where police are distrusted and where anti-police movements could be brewing. The body cameras can be used to counter any negative images and offer an alternative view to the police incidences.
A change in police behaviors is also necessary, even from an officer’s perspective. With many movements against the police, there could be the danger that the police departments fail to effectively perform their duties. Contempt of law enforcement is a dangerous affair for public safety. Body cameras are perceived as deterrence for bad behaviors as per the deterrence theory (Adams & Mastracci, 2018). Interventions by police departments can also be implemented from the evidence collected from the video evidence. Police reform could be needed because that is the only law enforcement can be sustained in the future. The public needs to trust the police but the police also need to behave prudently. In other words, body cameras should work for all parties and should be the beginning of positive police reforms. While much of this discussion presents the pros of body cameras for the police, it is also essential to understand the cons, including the fact that the videos could work against them. Other cons discussed by Adams and Mastracci (2018) include burnout and the invasion of privacy. However, the overall impact is that body cameras should come to the rescue of the police from public contempt.
The position taken is that the body cameras offer major benefits for the police, which means that their implementation should be enforced. With no conceivable cons from the public’s perspective, only support for the pros of body cameras for the officers can be emphasized. Several decades ago, such a position may not have been possible because some encounters are sensitive, especially during investigations. For normal patrols, body cameras can be used to make sure the actions of the police are monitored, as well as those of the public. I such a case, the conflicts between the public and police can be greatly reduced. From the deterrence theory highlighted by Adams and Mastracci (2018), it is not only the police who can be deterred from the use of excessive force. On the other hand, the knowledge that their actions are being observed makes the citizens careful about provoking the police and initiating violent encounters. The only danger is that the video evidence can be edited and manipulated against the citizens. However, with prudent implementation, such a disadvantage can be easily addressed.
The pros and cons of body cameras from the perspectives of the public and police officers have been explored. The main argument for the public is that with police brutality and racial policing, the citizens are the victims, which means that only the positive side of the argument is plausible. However, fears of manipulation of the video evidence can still arise, even though this should not be a major problem. From the perspective of the police, body cameras are also a welcome proposition because of the current trends in copwatching. The major cons include police burnout and invasion of privacy. However, the pros outweigh the cons in the sense the cameras can offer protection for the officers and help initiate positive police reforms.
Adams, I., & Mastracci, S. (2018). Police Body-Worn Cameras: Effects on Officers’ Burnout and Perceived Organizational Support. Police Quarterly, 22(1), 5-30. Web.
Fan, M. (2019). Police power and the video revolution: Proof, policing, privacy, and audiovisual big data. Cambridge University Press.
Gonzales, A., & Cochran, D. (2017). Police-worn body cameras: An antidote to the “Ferguson effect”. Missouri law Review, 82(2), 300-338. Web.
Murphy, J. (2018). Is it recording? – racial bias, police accountability, and the body-worn camera activation policies of the ten largest metropolitan police departments in the USA. Columbia Journal of Race and Law, 9(1), 141-190. Web.
Norwood, C. (2020). Body cameras are seen as key to police reform. But do they increase accountability? PBS News. Web.
Pruitt-Young, S. (2021). Justice Department says it will now require federal officers to wear body cameras. NPR. Web.
Wood, S. (2017). Police body cameras and professional responsibility: Public records and private evidence. Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, 46(1), 41-51. Web.