One-third of United States police departments using body cameras: They’re expensive, so are they worth it?

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CHICAGO (WITI) -- About one-third of the 18,000 police departments in the United States are using body cameras. The Milwaukee Police Department is looking into incorporating body cameras. They are expensive -- but are they worth it?

It was December 27th in Flagstaff, Arizona. Officer Tyler Stewart was responding to a domestic abuse call. Robert Smith was calm. They talked for several minutes before Officer Stewart asked: "Mind if I just pat down your pockets real quick? Don't have anything in here?" Then, Smith pulled out a gun. Four bullets hit Officer Stewart in the head. Smith then used Officer Stewart's service weapon to take his own life. This incident is believed to be the first time a police officer has captured his own death -- captured via body camera.

Taser International in Scottsdale, Arizona made the camera Officer Stewart was wearing, and he's also loaning cameras to the Chicago Police Department for its pilot program.

Following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, from the White House down, the demand for police body cameras is high across the country.

"If we can prevent one Ferguson with these cameras, or if we can prevent an officer-involved shooting, or if we can just reduce use of force, that`s a game changer," Steve Tuttle, VP of Communications for Taser International said.

As the name implies, the company started out making tasers -- adding cameras to their repertoire several years ago.

"We know this works. This is a tool that`s going to help police. It`s going to re-establish trust with the community. And again, if we don`t do it, who`s gonna want to be a cop in five years?" Tuttle said.

Mesa Officer Jason Flam has worn a body camera for two years by choice.

"The only complaints I`d ever received were complaints from people making things up saying 'I did something I didn`t do.' And, I wanted to put a stop to that," Flam said.

Here's how it works:

Once the camera's turned on, it's in a buffer stage -- continuously recording and deleting video.

"Let`s say I get called out have an interaction with you. My policy says record all conversations with the public. So I double click it. And once I`ve done that I`ve got some in my ear, I just heard that beep. Now it`s recording," Flam said.

Everything from that moment forward is recorded with video and sound, along with the previous 30 seconds of silent video. It's an effort to address police concerns about "Big Brother."

"We want to keep officers conversations private, so that buffer system works great. It encourages them to use that event button. They don`t miss the crime," Tuttle said.

And to stop the recording?

"Press and hold for five seconds. It`s a very deliberate action. And then I get a beep that lets me know that I`m no longer recording. I`m back into buffer mode," Tuttle said.

After every shift, officers plug their cameras into a charger -- uploading the encrypted video to Evidence.com, where it's stored in Taser International's cloud. The video can be shared, but it cannot be edited, deleted or accessed by anyone except the police chief or other authorized personnel.

"I guess my thinking is if you`re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about," Flam said.

The body cameras can be worn on your glasses, hat, chest, or lapel, capturing what`s happening from the officers point of view. But that video is always subject to interpretation.

"Everybody acts better when they`re on camera," Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead said.

Chief Milstead says body cameras are leveling the playing field with cell phone cameras.

"It`s no different than Monday Night Football.  We can all watch an instant replay and we can all sit on opposite sides of the couch and fight about what really happened," Chief Milstead said.

Experts say there are a handful of studies that show two important things: One, when officers wear cameras, citizen complaints against officers decrease substantially, and two, officers' use of force also goes down.

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President Barack Obama on Monday cautioned against finding easy answers to help ease tensions between communities and law enforcement after a task force unveiled its recommendations.

The 21st Century Policing Task Force unveiled a report recommending greater use of officer-worn body cameras, improved collection of officer involved shooting data and sanctions on police departments using unnecessary military tactics and equipment, among dozens of other policy recommendations.

After conducting seven listening sessions around the country, members of the task force issued 59 recommendations for how our communities can build stronger relationships with the police that serve them.

Obama praised the effort, but noted there's no one silver bullet for fixing the issue.

"There's been a lot of talk about body cameras as a silver bullet or a solution. I think the task force concluded that there is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it's not a panacea," Obama said. "It has to be embedded in a broader change in culture and a legal framework that ensures that people's privacy is respected and that not only police officers but the community themselves feel comfortable with how technologies are being used."

The report claimed law enforcement has become more effective over the last 20 years, but recent Gallup polls show public confidence in the police has flattened or decreased among minorities following the high-profile, officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.

The public would like more law enforcement to be more transparent, polls show, and that has prompted calls for officer-worn body camera to be the norm.

When officers wear body cameras, research shows there are 88% fewer incidents of use of force and 59% fewer complaints against officers. But complicating the issue is the fact that communities also still have privacy concerns about officers wearing cameras.

Greater transparency through body cameras would also improve data reporting, members of the task force said.

"There is no reason for us not to have this data available to use," said Charles Ramsey, who chaired the panel.

The task force also discouraged officers of donning riot gear and bearing military grade equipment when it is not absolutely necessary for crowd control, a practice that ratcheted up tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, following Brown's death.

Despite a broad consensus on the positive effects these recommendations would have on the relationship between law enforcement and communities, it will be a daunting task to implementing these proposals through the 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies operating in America. For example, the federal government may require police departments that receive federal money to report all of its officer involved shooting data, many smaller police departments do not receive federal grants leaving no mechanism to ensure proper reporting of this data.

5 comments

  • mh

    Body cameras equal protection for Police as well as Citizens! You CANNOT put a value on that. Body Cams are a necessity! Only crooked cops dont want them!

  • s holmes

    Great, now when the special lib criminals pull out their sandwich & start shooting it will all be on camera.

  • Justin Paden

    Too expensive? For all of our 1.1 million to be equipped with body cameras, which would cost about $10 each to manufacture, would be a total of about $11 million. That is far less than they spend on ammunition every year.

  • jmatlansky

    WE THE PEOPE, of these United States, state that the use of police body cameras will be only as effective as a tactic if an organization like ours that are completely independent of all U.S. government law enforcement agencies within and outside our nation will monitor the training of the use of the cameras.
    For the last 10 years our national police oversight board have researched and investigated then created the program, Truly Reforming Law Enforcement within the nations only law, Oregon Senate Bill 111 Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Physical Force mandated to be in full force July 1, 2008.
    In the Portland Tribune Newspaper Oct. 31, 2013 in a three page featured article per FBI records for 2012 Portland had the lowest Murders of 20 compared to the very highest total of 500 Murders in Chicago. The major reasons are the program and law with five major steps that define the moment an officer has started to use unjustified deadly physical force that must be stooped by witnessing officers or face criminal charges and possible prison time equal to the same length as the public receive for the same charges.

    Google: program, Truly Reforming Law Enforcement
    Make every day terrific,
    Jerry Atlansky Founder/Chairperson
    United States Police/Oregon State Police-
    Independent Citizens Review Board
    Portland Oregon 97213
    jmatlansky@gmail.com,
    All emails are answered in just hours.

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