If we trust cops, we should insist upon body cameras

As I have written before, most of the time I trust cops. That’s why I am very much in favor of requiring cops to wear and use body cameras when interacting with citizens.

The Obama administration wants to spend a lot of money buying 50,000 body cameras for police officers. There is reason to think that when cops wear cameras the cops are better off and so are the rest of us:

In Rialto, California, where police began wearing body cameras back in 2012, citizen complaints against officers fell 88 percent in the first year, and use of force by officers declined 60 percent. That’s an indication that cameras don’t only document the events as they unfold, they actually change the way everyone involved behaves. As Rialto police chief told The New York Times: “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better. And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

And in Washington D.C., where a $1 million, 6-month body camera pilot program is underway, officials expect to see complaints against officers fall by 80 percent. “This gives us that independent, unbiased witness…This will make our officers safer,” police chief Cathy Lanier told The Washington Post. “It will make our department more transparent. It will reduce the amount of time supervisors have to spend investigating allegations.”

Issie Lapowsky, The White House Wants to Spend Millions Putting Body Cameras on Cops, Wired (December 1, 2014).

When Rudy Giuliani and Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump agree that cops should wear and use body cameras, it is hard to argue against the proposition. Indeed, I have seen the utility of in-car cameras in interdiction stops along I-80.

While body cameras pose all sorts of problems, and are not a panacea, if the tragedy in Missouri produces a national consensus that cops should film themselves in action and the feds should step up to the plate with money, that will be a very good thing. Besides, I just can’t wait to see a street dealer captured on tape claiming his right to privacy was violated during a “stop and frisk” as crack falls out of his pants.


22 responses

  1. RGKk,
    I’ve worked as a law clerk in criminal appeals and helped with some local DUI cases from the prosecution side. I 100% agree that cameras should become mandatory. It would make my job a hell of a lot easier, cut down on appeals, and cut down on the sinking feeling I get in my stomach when I read a warrant, look at a cop’s testimony, and realize that they’re lying and there is nothing I can do to stop them. Most cops are not like this, but everyone fudges numbers when the boss ain’t looking. Why should police officers be any different? I see a lot in the news media lately protraying cops as either super heroes or super villains, depending on which side you ask. I don’t believe either story for a moment. I think we should treat them just like we would ourselves. They are strong, necessary protectors who are fallible.


  2. SLS,

    Well put. Particularly, “They are strong, necessary protectors who are fallible.” I might also add, “And, in some very small fraction of the cases, they are evil just like some of the rest of us.” All the best.


  3. “Trust, but verify.”

    We’ve all experienced the “State Patrol Effect,” where the mere sight of a cop car causes us to step on the brakes. The threat of malpractice actions makes professionals do a better job. Why wouldn’t this common-sense principle apply with equal force to public officials? It is hard for us as citizens to perform our constitutionally-mandated oversight function if our agents in government are allowed to act in the shadows, and are unaccountable for their actions.

    Sunshine, said Brandeis, is a marvelous disinfectant. I would apply the same rule to judges, where every internal memo is made public and every appellate conference, “on the record.” If the general public saw the malpractice and even criminal negligence judges commit on a regular basis (and as you will recall, I backed this claim up when asked), it would demand reform. If our judges knew for certain that the public was watching their every move, you wouldn’t have fifty appeals decided in two hours. You would also get better lower court decisions, translating into increased confidence in our judiciary and fewer appeals.

    What do you think of this proposal, Judge Kopf?

  4. Experience has taught me that that “fraction” is distressingly large. And it is not “evil,” so much as it is just fellow humans, being human.

    Cops are all human. As are other public officials (including federal judges). The propensity of an official to “fudge the numbers” appears to a direct and inverse function of the level of personal accountability that the official thinks he or she will face for indulging. Increase personal accountability, and you will improve performance.

  5. There seems to be an unchallenged “assumption” that the use of body cameras will prevent lying or “fudging” by the cops. Sure, that makes sense. I also suggest that it may be even more of a revealing factor to prove that the people in confrontation with the cops are most often the liars – they are the bad guys, not the cops, in the vast majority of situations. I have no “data” to back this up, of course, except for what most dashboard cameras show – idiot/criminal behavior by citizens. The same may very well be what is learned with body cameras. Also, are we expecting the small-town Nebraska police department to incur the cost of having its one or two cops wear a camera? There had better be some common sense in the application of this “solution” or it will just be another very expensive nanny-state government boon-doggle. One size does not fit all . . . . . . .

  6. MOK, If as you rightly suggested cameras will show police in the right, they will serve their purpose to engender trust in the police, who have lost it in large parts of our society, and they will cut down on the lying that does go on and the too frequent abuses of power. One size does not fit all but on the other hand Ferguson, MO was not exactly St Louis. Nanny state language is not appropriate when dealing with behavior of police who have no right to do their own thing, you need some new additions to your collection of Nebraska colloquialisms, maybe bossy federal government.

  7. Curmudgeon, I leave you and the Judge to fight about judges, but you have put your finger on a very large problem. The fact that we trust the police and almost always accept their stories is an invitation to dishonesty and abuse of authority. On the other hand police are prone to feelings of isolation and semi-paranoia about how they are treated. Maybe cameras will reduce police fear of being judged by those who do not get it.

  8. While body cameras are not a “cure-all,” it is a very solid first step. Personally, as a 6-0, 215 pound Latino, whenever I interact with law enforcement, I would feel less anxious knowing there is a body camera recording my interaction.

  9. Skink, when I was young and dealing with such issues that was called dropsy, along with plain site and furtive movement they were a kind of testimonial trinity. Is dropsy still the name and are the other two still around. Of course the stories the police hear never change, which breeds cynicism. Try defending the dui for the fellow who really had one beer.

  10. Curmudgeon,

    I think courts, particularly federal courts, should be far more transparent. I wouldn’t care much if the memos my law clerks sent me were made public. I would balk at making my e-mails, their e-mails or my oral private conversations with the law clerks public.

    Let me ask you this: Do you think jury deliberations should be made public in real time or even afterwards via a transcript?

    All the best.


  11. Well, I’m a 6-2, 250, old fat, white guy, but I still have a story.

    A few years ago, I was expressway driving outside one of Florida’s hub cities. It’s the one that has the mouse. As always on trips through the Florida loneliness, I was armed. At every juncture, a person could encounter Deliverance. Or maybe a wild boar, miniature deer or mythical Florida Panther that needs to be put out of its misery.

    So it was, easing along the expressway at 80. Not a care in the world, when I spotted him, hiding behind a bridge post, holding the laser like a .40 while plinking varmints. His motorcycle was nearby.

    I drive. I drive a lot. I drive far. Plain statistics require that I have encounters with the laser-users. Before he got his bike up to speed, I was on the side of the road; all windows down, hands on the wheel. I greeted him with a “howdy,” and told him there was a weapon in the console–in just the same fashion as the previous 5 or 6 times that year.

    He stepped back and drew his weapon. That was unusual, but he placed it along his right leg, pointing down. He told me he was going to move to the passenger side and inspect the weapon. Okay by me.

    But as he stood by my door, telling me his plan, he was using his weapon as a pointer. When he said he was going to the passenger side, he made a wide arch covering the front of the vehicle, and settling on the passenger door. Whenever he mentioned me, as in “stay still,” “don’t move” and “here’s what we’re gonna do,” the barrel was squarely on by big nose. That wasn’t okay.

    I told him he could do as he wanted, so long as he stopped pointing at me, or at least stop talking about me while he was pointing. I wondered who trained him. He told me he didn’t need my input. .

    I’m a fan of cameras. they provide grist for teaching moments.

  12. Skink,

    The way I remember it now, I was 17 and a skinny white kid, weighing about 140 pounds and standing about six feet tall.

    It was raining and cold. I was coming home from visiting a very pretty Lebanese girl. Her devout parents did not like me much, and she told me that I had better not come around anymore.

    I was driving a black ’55 Chevy. It had 265 cu in (4.3 L) engine and a big crack in the wind shield. Smoking a Lucky Strike in my depression, I noticed a police car coming up fast behind with lights and siren. I stopped.

    Two cops got out. Each crouched behind their doors with their weapons out. They screamed at me to get out of the car. I did. They screamed at me again to put my hands on the top of the car, and not move. I did that too.

    They were very rough as they patted me down and searched the car. They demanded that I open the trunk and I did.

    They let me go with no explanation to speak of, and walked briskly back to the crusier. I later learned from reading the Toledo Blade that someone had been involved in a car chase and an exchange of gun fire between the police and the driver ensued.

    The driver had escaped but the police were sure that they had shot up the car pretty good, including the front wind shield. The fellow was driving a black ’55 Chevy.

    Ever since then, I have hated Ford police cars and I wish I had that ’55 Chevy even now. By the way, I hope the pretty Lebanese girl has had a good life, but I have no clue how things worked out for her.

    All the best.


  13. Judge Kopf,

    It’s an incisive question in the abstract, as the argument for secrecy is not without force in judicial deliberations. But that pesky Seventh Amendment has answered it conclusively, inasmuch as it was intended to “preserve” the jury trial as it existed in 1789. Jury deliberations were secret then, and that drives the bus. Secrecy was intended to encourage dissent in the jury box, which translated into an additional protection for the defendant. (Professor Suja Thomas has written both extensively and brilliantly on this.)

    If there is a distinction to be drawn, it is that while the judge is an effective control on the wayward jury, there is no effective institutional control on the wayward judge. Furthermore, judges were intended to be mere machines, applying the law of the land to the facts of a case. The source code ought to be auditable, as opposed to a Diebold “black box.”

    A real-life example I was made aware of on this blog should make this point. One of your learned colleagues actually held that the 5Am was not a waiver of sovereign immunity. Think of how objectively daft that that is: the people enacted a Bill of Rights — supreme Law of the Land — that was voidable by a simple act of Congress, because they didn’t ratify an 11Am that said that “we really, really, really mean it!” Wouldn’t you like to know how a seasoned graduate of Harvard Law came to that bizarre conclusion, or be a fly on the wall when her rube law clerk from Nebraska asked her exactly what the fuck she was thinking? Wouldn’t that be germane on appeal? Yeah, I do want to see the e-mails and know about the conversations.

    It is even worse at the appellate level, as most people don’t realize how little time judges spend on the typical appeal. Judge Arnold didn’t “feel dirty” for no reason. Posner admitted (again, you commended this for our reading!) that he had a high error rate (and that he was not alone), and that he wasn’t as careful in reviewing unpublished opinions. I would go so far as to say that in the case of “unpublished” opinions, we are denied our statutory right to a meaningful appeal.

    If the Supreme Court didn’t shirk their constitutional duty, this would not be quite as problematic, but there is no constitutional provision that would stop us from demanding complete transparency and accountability in our courts. We fight the same battle, which is probably why you tolerate my snark.

  14. Robert,

    Thanks very much. The comprehensive article lays outs many of the problems and concerns. I am very glad you sent it on. People who are serious about requiring the use of body cameras ought to read it. All the best.


  15. The Vox article wasn’t horrible; though it’s hardly comprehensive in thinking about the potential drawbacks, especially those from the LE perspective. Very much par for the course for a website that’s little more than a.secondhand retailer of other people’s ideas.

    For example, especially problematic is how much and how well they film (i.e., image resolution, field of view, night vision, stabilization, etc.). Apart myriad possible evidentiary and privacy issues, if the camera sees better than the officer’s natural eyesight (say in a low light/contrast setting), it can appear that a mistaken, but justifiable, shooting was in fact deliberate. Similarly, a very flat image may not have the officer’s peripheral and dimensional perspective. Even if the equipment is chosen and used properly, you still have to deal with the problem of “cultural cognition, aptly described in the Stanford Law review article “They Saw a Protest’: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction.”

    Another issue concerns requests for body camera video. It takes a very significant amount of time and money to blur faces, redact sensitive information, mute audio, etc., as well considerable legal analysis about what must and what should not be disclosed. It’s likely the technology has advanced further than our criminal and privacy jurisprudence currently stands.

    And, frankly, nothing is good or bad as policy makes it so. Will officers be allowed to review video of a shooting before making a statement? Is each officer issued his own camera, or are the units pooled? If pooled, will this cause a jam at shift change? Will officers be asked to position themselves in a way that puts obtaining the best footage ahead of officer safety? Serious questions abound. There’s also a good article in the HBR, “How Being Filmed Changes Employee Behavior,” namely about the decrease in creativity and positive deviance.

    Bodycams are a good and inevitable (in fact, disruptive) change to policing. Though, I’ll caution those that think of them as tool only intended to empower the public and monitor the police ought to consider which way the camera is pointed. A public that appears to like privacy and transparency in equal measure needs to realize that it cannot have unlimited amounts of both.

  16. “I’m a fan of cameras. they provide grist for teaching moments.”
    Agreed. I had a group that thought they had room clearing down pat. I put
    together the compiled headcam footage, with a video of the Count from Sesame Street embedded in the corner saying, “One Muzzle Sweeps. Two Muzzle Sweeps….TEN muzzle sweeps!?” before frantically diving for cover off stage left.
    Much better results than my attempts with clicker training.

  17. Pingback: Welcome To The Police Body Cam Discussion | Simple Justice

  18. “Most cops are not like this….”

    To some degree that’s I think that’s probably true; though the Knapp and Pennsylvania commissions are far from ancient history (i.e., until very recently, leaders in both departments had been officers, and hardly whistleblowers, during the bad years). And Judge Irving Younger’s admonition about testilying* apparently holds true even 50 years later (as noted by Justice Reichbach, Peter Keane, among others).

    “think we should treat them just like we would ourselves. They are strong, necessary protectors who are fallible.”
    Or, like everyone, they’re people who respond to incentives, generally want to get more for less, and are limited by bounded ethicality.

    “but everyone fudges numbers when the boss ain’t looking.”
    Speak for yourself (though I plead the Fifth when it comes to Netflix).

    *It surprises me that evidentiary/suppression motions (of the 200+ I’ve seen), not to mention the cases themselves, are almost always attended only by the defense and prosecutor; rarely does the criminal bar come to spectate (even for motions heard just after cases Randolph, like Riley, Crawford, etc. were decided). There’s a wealth of data — inter alia, the officers who seem never to be called as witnesses or give “Haven’t I heard this exact story before?” testimony — that gets left on the table.

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