Should police officers be required to wear body cameras?

Should police officers be required to wear body cameras?

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A Texas jury has charged former police officer Roy Oliver with the murder of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. Oliver claimed he and his partner were in danger when he fired on a car occupied by Edwards, but his body camera footage and eyewitness testimony showed otherwise. As Edwards' case shows, body cam footage can be used to corroborate or contradict police accounts of events. But critics worry that body cameras don't do enough to protect citizens and could even be used against victims. What do you think?


Roy Oliver, a former police officer in Balch Springs, a suburb of Dallas, was found guilty of the murder of Jordan Edwards, who was just 15 years old. Edwards was in the passenger seat of his stepbrother's car leaving a house party when Oliver shot five rounds into the car. Oliver claimed the car was driving at his partner, Tyler Gross.

 Gross, along with several eyewitnesses, and footage from Oliver's body camera, disputed this account of the events. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Oliver said in his defense that he thought the car was going to run over Gross. Gross and other experts testified that the car was never going toward either officer.
“You saw the body camera videos ... and you clearly saw on those videos that vehicle was at no time a threat to Officer Gross,” Prosecutor George Lewis said in his closing statement.

Prosecutors used forensic video expert Grant Fredericks to explain in detail the footage from both officers' body cameras. Per NBCDFW:

Fredericks broke down the body camera footage from Oliver and the second officer, Tyler Gross.
"We can see the lens of the rear light. Therefore, the vehicle is past the officer and is moving away from the officer at this point," Fredericks explained.
Prosecutor Michael Snipes asked if the vehicle was past the officer before the first shot was fired.
"Correct. Yes, he is behind the vehicle," Fredericks answered.
"Officer Gross is not in the position to be impacted by the vehicle. The vehicle is moving away from the officer and even if it were moving backward, he still isn't in the line of the trajectory of the motion of the vehicle," Fredericks said. "He's still off to the right and behind the vehicle."
Fredericks played the body camera footage from officers, side-by-side to show jurors where each officer was right before, and during, the shooting.
He testified all five shots fired by Oliver were fired in .934 seconds, just under a second.

With the aid of both eyewitness testimony and the video footage from the officers' body cameras, the jury found Oliver guilty of murder. Prosecutor Mike Snipes described Edwards, per Mic

“That’s who this case is about. That kid right there,” Snipes said while pointing to a photo of Edwards. “It’s not a fairy tale. He really was that great. He really did have a 3.5 GPA, he really did want to go to Alabama to play football for them, he really did work out every day, he really did have a million friends, he really did have a nickname ‘Smiley.’ He was the real deal.”

In a story from 2017, German Lopez wrote for Vox that while many activists thought body cameras would be a panacea for police misconduct, the reality is much more complicated. Human error and technical limitations make body cameras an imperfect solution to an enormous problem. 

Sometimes the lack of clarity can be caused by the technological limits of the cameras themselves. The video may not be very high-quality. If it comes from a body camera, it’s filmed from a narrow view — whatever is visible from the officer’s perspective. It might miss key moments if the cameras aren’t activated quickly enough, or it might not capture a shooting at all.
“The video can be ambiguous,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an expert on body cameras at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “It’s hard to interpret sometimes. It’s shaky. Often, the body cameras aren’t turned on at the right time … so they may not capture all of a particular incident.”
...This shows another flaw of body cameras in particular: The cameras can’t, at least for now, be left on at all times due to technological constraints (especially battery and storage limits) and privacy concerns (particularly for civilians whom police are filming). So it’s ultimately up to individual officers to decide when the camera is turned on — and that makes it possible for cops, on purpose or not, to effectively cover up acts of bad policing.
Combined, these limitations make it so body cameras were always doomed to fall short of the expectations that some supporters had. The problems with policing are just too messy and complicated for one piece of technology — or video more broadly — to fix.

The effects of body cameras on police conduct were studied last year in Washington, D.C. One thousand D.C. officers were randomly assigned to wear body cameras, while another thousand were not. Researchers then "tracked use-of-force incidents, civilian complaints, charging decisions and other outcomes to see if the cameras changed behavior." 

The study showed that officers' behavior did not significantly vary, whether they were wearing cameras or not. While some see this as a reason to disregard the use of cameras altogether, other leaders in the law enforcement community say there are still many other reasons to use cameras. Per The New York Times.

Cities that lack such accountability in their police culture may find cameras more effective, under this theory. (The Rialto Police Department had been reeling from a series of scandals when the Rialto study showed a large impact from cameras.)
Even if cameras do not reduce violent encounters, they can still offer other kinds of benefits: for training, or to hold a rogue officer accountable after the fact.
To Chief Newsham, the cameras’ primary benefit is to improve relations with the community. “The transparency and trust that the community has, knowing your department is recording the interactions, I don’t think you can undervalue that,” he said. So far, it’s hard to say for sure if cameras increase trust, but Chief Newsham said he’d like to find out more through additional studies like this one.

In police departments where officers currently wear body cameras, there is still concern that officers have too much control over what does or does not get filmed. Per Fusion:

A 2014 investigation by Fusion found that for all their promise, body cameras are often ineffective to prevent police misconduct. What’s more, when they are turned on, the footage typically serves police more than citizens.
One of the biggest issues is that officers are often in charge of pressing the record button on the camera, allowing them to decide what gets filmed. In many use of force cases, officers wearing body cameras simply don’t have them turned on.
“This is one of our biggest concerns – the promise of this technology as a police oversight mechanism will be undermined if individual officers can manipulate what is taped and what isn’t,” ACLU Senior Policy Analyst, Jay Stanley told Fusion at the time. “There needs to be very strong policies that make very clear when police officers are expected to be recording and back that up with strict enforcement.”

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