I have been a law enforcement officer with a mid-sized municipal agency for almost five years. The debate over whether officers should be wearing body cameras to me seems long overdue, but not for the reasons most are talking about.
The reason I believe police should wear body cameras is to me not just a matter of checking our integrity and conduct (although that certainly will be a benefit), but is more a matter of checking the integrity and conduct of the people we come into contact with.
Many of the frivolous complaints filed against me in my years of active police work would almost certainly be dismissed upon receipt had I had the benefit of a body camera. Instead, supervisors have had to spend considerable time investigating complaints that are eventually unfounded or are materially false. Police are then accused of not investigating properly or covering for each other when the outcome is not desirable to the complainant.
Another benefit will be in the improvement in our ability to report on incidents.
Many times the camera will catch statements and actions that may fail to register in our memory, but upon review can be documented as part of the report. There is also the added benefit of clarity, where our written words in the report cannot do justice to the events that unfold. Drunken driving arrests in particular come to mind. Clearly intoxicated persons who refuse to perform certain portions of the testing process will not be able to escape the camera’s video and audio recording capability, which will show in detail their actions that lead us to believe they were intoxicated.
Aside from enhancing our ability to report on incidents, the presence of a recorder can change the direction of an incident on its own. Recently, when having to diffuse volatile situations, I have told belligerents that their conduct is being recorded even though it was not. There have been multiple occasions where this tactic has given pause to those who otherwise might continue to cause a problem.
Being able to record belligerent, uncooperative persons will put into focus the actions of law enforcement officers when confronted with interference.
On the topic of recording uses of force, I don’t know of any correlation between an incident of excessive use of force that would not have happened had a body camera been worn by the officer. I don’t believe any of the officers involved in the most recent high profile cases would have acted differently had they worn body cameras.
That isn’t to say that investigations would not have been handled differently, but specific to the conduct itself, I don’t know that a camera will change who a person is or how he or she acts in stressful situations. Furthermore, other officers and I already operate under the belief that someone has a cell phone recording what we are doing, and I recently benefited from a bystander’s recording of me during an arrest.
Many questions surround what we do with all this video that will need to be stored. Aside from the costs of storing the data (which will undoubtedly be very high), quelling the public’s insatiable curiosity will be impossible. Therefore, I would like to see laws and policies that protect the privacy of citizens, so that we can avoid an environment where those in need don’t call police because they are afraid of what will be visually recorded.
Police respond to cases involving emotionally disturbed persons, medical emergencies, and other incidents that people consider deeply private. I believe that a statewide policy specific to the release of body camera video will provide uniformity and compliance with standards across different agencies, protect the privacy of victims of crime and other incidents, while also providing the oversight of police that the public desires.
In general, body cameras will go a long way toward modernizing policing; bringing much needed technology to what I believe is a very antiquated profession. I think the benefits far outweigh the detriments, and I encourage the efforts of those trying to bring these tools to the road.
E. Alex Silva has been a Connecticut P.O.S.T. certified police officer for over four years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Central Connecticut State University, and served one term as an elected member of his local board of education. He served four years in the United States Marine Corps and over 10 years as a volunteer firefighter.