The City of Rialto, California recently reported that after they required police officers to wear cameras on duty, citizen complaints dropped by 88 percent in the first year. This idea has created a sparking debate across the country, and recently the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) endorsed the idea. The ACLU also emphasized the potential for the technology to be misused and recommended policies to minimize the potential downsides. “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 civil liberties group argues.
Many police officers object to having every moment of their day recorded. However, if officers get to choose when to turn off their cameras then it undermines the purpose of the camera entirely, because an officer could simply turn the camera off before he does something wrong. To address this issue the ACLU suggest a “department-wide policy that mandates that police turn on recordings during every interaction with the public.” For example, the courts might have a rule excluding evidence collected by an officer who had his camera turned off.
The ACLU does favor some exceptions. For example, they would have the police comply with requests to turn off their cameras before entering a private residence. This would be an exception because such a request would typically be caught on camera, and would be easy to verify after the fact. The ACLU argues that most camera footage should be deleted quickly, “in weeks not years.” Footage that is relevant to an arrest or a citizen complaint would be held for a longer period. Footage would be released to the public if the subject of a video consented to it.
Currently, only a few departments are experimenting with this technology, and it remains to be seen if it will be widely adopted by police agencies. Given the heated debates over alleged police misconduct in many cities, cop cameras are a policy both sides should be able to get behind. Cameras would allow citizens who are the victims of police misconduct to be able to prove their claims. At the same time, police officers who are unfairly accused of misconduct could prove their innocence.
“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, and follow the rules a little better,” Rialto’s police chief William A. Farrar recently told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”
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