The eye of a camera never blinks.
It records any and all activities and action within range. In other words, the camera doesn’t lie, either.
On Aug. 9, 2014, a shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was brought to light after being recorded on a cellphone camera and posted on various forms of social media.
What was different about this event was the fact that the victim, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was unarmed when he was gunned down.
Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old police officer who shot Brown, believed Brown fit the description of a suspect in a “strong-armed” convenience store robbery.
The events of Ferguson sparked a national discussion, raising questions about racial profiling and police brutality. Were it not for that short video posted on Twitter, no one would have been able to fight for justice for Brown.
“When I first heard of body cameras, I was against them,” said James Figorski, a former police officer-turned-lawyer who has focused on seeking exoneration for prisoners who have been wrongly convicted in Pennsylvania.
In a February address to participants in the Acel Moore High School Journalism Workshop, Figorski said: “I thought [body cameras] would make cops hesitate before taking action.” He also worried that any hesitation could “lead to their injury or death.”
Figorski has since changed his mind, saying that a camera should not change a good cop. Only bad behavior is discouraged.
Long before the events of Ferguson, police officers wore body cameras in California and other states.
The Philadelphia Police Department implemented the policy three months after Brown’s shooting, in part because of it and its aftermath.
The body-cam movement has swept the nation, from Los Angeles to New York City. But are the recordings helping?
After the events of Ferguson, then-President Barack Obama proposed that more police officers wear a camera on their lapels to help build public trust.
The idea was well-received by police departments and communities across the country. Most of that goodwill didn’t last long, however, before the cameras caught some officers exercising questionable behavior.
One such case involved a Baltimore officer who was shown, by his body cam, planting evidence at the scene of what would have been a simple drug bust.
The footage showed the officer placing plastic baggies filled with white capsules into a food can and hiding it under piles of trash. Then the audio captured the officer saying, “I’m going to check here. Hold on,” as he searched for the evidence he planted.
The lack of audio during the apparent planting of evidence suggested that he was unsure whether his camera was recording. Fortunately for the victim, it was.
Figorski said that body cams help.
“I think that police are less likely to act aggressively when they know they are being filmed,” he said. “Anyone would be hesitant to engage in bad behavior when he or she knows a camera is filming everything.”
Researchers at the University of Florida, studying a body-camera pilot program at the Orlando Police Department, reported significant reductions in injuries to officers and civilians when a body-worn camera was involved.
The cameras also can keep officers from getting sidetracked. Officers who know their moves are being watched could behave differently in many situations.
“For example, they may not stop and have discussions with people,” Figorski said, “because they may feel uncomfortable having even routine encounters on video.”
The cameras can keep both sides safe, and they provide information on how officers spend their time and react to situations.
Said Figorski: “Body cameras are good for two reasons: They have the potential to expose the misconduct of bad cops, and they have the potential to help good cops by protecting them from false accusations and by providing evidence of crimes committed against them.”