There’s no video of the confrontation between Ferguson officer Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown—at least not any recorded by the police. Police Chief Thomas Jackson reported that his department has four cameras, two for dashboards and two to been worn on uniforms. He said that no one had installed the equipment as of the August 9 shooting because of a lack of funding.
Even had they been installed, these cameras might not have provided a complete picture of exactly what transpired between Wilson, Brown, and witness Dorian Johnson. A body camera, for example, might not have been pointed in the perfect direction or covered a wide enough field. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been rolling.
Even in those places where law enforcement currently employs body cameras, there appears to a remarkable lack of protocol as to their use. Stanford Professor David Sklansky recently told the Daily Journal that there aren’t any legal regulations about the storing and use of data from body cams. Writer Kylie Reynolds observes, “Without any laws, questions abound about when officers should turn on or off their cameras.” (“Police body cameras fuel privacy debate,” Daily Journal, Aug. 21, 2014 (partial reprint here).)
But it seems as though, if there’s any problem with the deployment of these recording devices, it’s that departments are capturing too much. Reynolds quotes Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch, who says that agencies generally have the cameras rolling “100 percent of the time.”
As Reynolds reports, there are appropriate concerns about privacy in officer encounters, particularly when the interaction occurs inside a home or there are folks nearby who have nothing to do with issue at hand. And there’s legitimate unease about how long departments store video data, whom within their departments they let see it, and whether they release it to the public. One gets Orwellian chills when imagining hordes of officers wandering the streets, always recording us and never deleting the footage.
But it sure seems that—with proper regulations in place—police cameras could at least help the truth-finding process.
And they might even save taxpayers some money, allowing for more efficient internal investigations and reducing the amount of police-misconduct litigation. Several outlets report that, in places where patrol officers now wear cameras, there’s been a staggering reduction in complaints against police. Not only that, but cameras seem to incline officers to reserve their use of force for appropriate circumstances. Take the results in San Diego, for example.
Call for Change
It’s no surprise that, in the midst of the Michael Brown controversy, more than 148,000 people have signed a White House petition calling for a law on body-camera use. Because it surpassed the 100,000-signature marker, the administration has to respond to the request for the “Michael Brown law,” which would require nearly all police to wear cameras.
Few petition signers would argue that dash and body cams are an elixir. But, as long as legislatures and courts were to keep a close eye on the use of this kind of equipment, some good might result.