Behind The Body Camera: The Ethics, Adoption And Impact Of Recording Police Interactions
As public interest in fatal police use of force continues, a growing number of police departments have begun using body-worn cameras as tools for transparency and documentation of civilian interactions.
And while recent research shows their impact might not be having the expected effect, according to a 2016 Department of Justice report, 47% of law enforcement agencies had acquired body cameras. Some states, like Connecticut, offer grant-funding to departments looking to purchase cameras for their officers.
The Connecticut program began in 2016 but since then, only 36 of the state’s 97 departments have taken advantage of the funding. Recently, using a combination of state grant money and city funding, the Hartford Police Department began rolling out body cams to hundreds of officers after wrapping up a pilot program in February. The department is one of the largest in the state of Connecticut.
“I think it provides a level of transparency and accountability to not only our police department in the city but the community at large,” said Hartford Police Department Captain Jeffrey Rousseau. “Moving forward with this, it provides protection to our officers, it provides accurate depictions of the incidents and I think it’s also a win-win for everyone involved, not only in our police department but also stakeholders — the community, the city.”
Officer Noelia Resto has been with Hartford police for 18 years. She was one of 40 officers to receive her camera during the pilot program in February. Since then, she has recorded more than 300 videos.
“I think the amount of time that I’m using it now, it’s more like second nature,” Resto said. “It’s like alright — I’m turning my lights on, I’m turning [my camera] on. So it’s a part of my process of how I approach the call. I think with time, if everyone gets the same opportunity, it’ll be easier to use.”
As an officer within the traffic division, traffic stops are her most common interaction with civilians.
“I try that every time I have a stop, as soon as I safely stop, I turn it on,” Resto said. “Once I’m done with the stop, I go ahead and turn it off.”
The camera has a large button in the center that officers press to turn it on, off and place it on standby. It beeps each time the mode is changed. Resto has hers configured to vibrate every two minutes while it’s on, even if it’s not recording.
She also uses the accompanying Axon View smartphone app to categorize each video as one of 21 different types of interaction, like traffic stops, arrests, routine service and use of force. Each category details how long the video must be stored, from 90 days, a few years or until manually deleted. Only system administrators, not officers, supervisors or detectives, can delete videos.
Captain Rousseau said the pilot program and on-going trainings aim to ensure officers know how to properly wear and use the cameras.
“Some of officers have worked here 15, 20 years out in the field and they’ve never had this little block attached to their chests that’s kind of weighing them down a little bit,” Rousseau said. “So it took some time to get used to as far as getting the mindset of an incident happens or seeing something that needs to be recorded.”
The Evolution From Tasers To Body Cameras
Axon, the company that supplies more than 60% of Connecticut’s body cameras, has also supplied over 200,000 cameras across more than 1,500 law enforcement agencies throughout the country. It’s currently the largest provider of body cams in the country.
The company started out making tasers in 1993 as AIR TASER, Inc. then TASER International, Inc. The company has faced scrutiny and lawsuits due to the number of deaths associated with the electric stun guns.
The company then rebranded as Axon in 2017, becoming a leader in body camera sales. Jason Hartford, Axon’s Vice President of Connected Devices, said at first, law enforcement agencies were “very slow” to adopt the technology.
“As agencies started to see benefits, if they had situations in which their officers were in critical incidents and the public were in critical incidents then these body-worn cameras as evidence started to level the playing field,” Hartford said. “[They] started to show how police officers were working with the public and how the public was responding.”
A year later in 2018, Axon created an ethics board that comprises a combination of law enforcement and former law enforcement officers, researchers, public policy experts and scientists, known as the Axon AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board. According to Axon’s website, the board’s charge is to provide the company with “guidance about the responsible development of police technologies and of AI features in our products and services, which includes considering when to use and not use AI.”
According to Hartford, the Ethics Board is part of Axon’s effort to keep law enforcement and the community “safe, efficient and effective” when using their product.
“We really have the impetus to be above board, allow a public forum and a group of people to challenge the way that we approach technology,” Hartford said, “to challenge our thinking so that we made sure we were using technology in a responsible way.”
Moji Solgi, Axon’s Vice President of AI & Machine Learning, says that it’s important for companies who develop technology that impacts people’s lives to have an “independent voice and to think about ethical and privacy and security aspects.”
“Technology is generally powerful and the way it affects communities usually is something that requires a lot of due diligence and thinking and seeing around the corner and the known and unknown consequences,” Solgi said. “People who develop the technology day-to-day normally don’t have enough time to sit back and think about these long-term effects. With that power comes the burden of responsibility.”
In April 2018, the same month that Axon announced its Ethics Board, a group of more than 40 civil rights and civil liberties groups including the ACLU and NAACP, wrote a joint letter to Axon asking to get involved with the board. The letter included detailed recommendations on areas of concern for the groups.
“We wanted to make clear, at the outset of the Ethics Board’s work, that there are red lines that Axon simply must not cross, such as building real-time face recognition into body-worn cameras,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, one of the organizations that co-signed the letter.
Prior to sending the letter, Axon invited Yu to be on the board, but he declined. Yu said that Axon did not respond or engage the groups after they sent the letter. He’s critical of what he says is the company’s tendency to engage with law enforcement but not civil rights and community groups regarding their needs and concerns.
Yu says more people who are subjected to high police presence in their communities need to have a seat at the table.
“The bottom line is that deliberations about the ethics of Axon’s products need to center the voices of those who are most impacted by these technologies,” Yu said. “In this case, those who live in the most heavily policed communities and those who have directly experienced law enforcement harm and violence.”
In a June 2019 response to Guns & America, an Axon representative said, “We did not receive any specific requests for comment from any of the groups involved with drafting or signing [the letter].”
In 2018 however, Axon released the following statement to the media:
“We received the letter from various groups and appreciate their interest. We will consider their input and also are discussing means of increasing participation and constructive input from other stakeholders as we move forward with this first-of-its-kind board. We plan to be as transparent as possible. We will issue the outcomes from the first meeting in the coming weeks, and plan to do so on a continuing basis, as well as releasing occasional white papers on our discussions.”
The Fight Over Footage
The Axon Ethics Board published its first report in June 2019, along with a response from the company. Barry Friedman serves on the Ethics Board and is the faculty director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law.
The Policing Project has been tapped by the New York Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department and others to evaluate how officers are using body cameras and how communities perceive their efficacy and use.
Formed in 2018, the Policing Project works with “communities and police departments across the country to ensure that police department policies and practices are transparent, efficacious, and adopted with public input.” The Los Angeles Police Commission specifically asked for help collecting public input on a policy on when to release video after an officer-involved shooting.
Friedman is concerned that body cameras are “becoming a surveillance tool in the hands of police.”
“There are many jurisdictions in which the policies regarding body cams don’t allow for or don’t provide disclosure of the footage at times when it might be appropriate for accountability,” Friedman said, “but at the same time that footage is being used [by police] to prosecute criminal offenses.”
Six states allow body camera footage to be a part of public record — Connecticut, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Kentucky.
With some exceptions, laws in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina generally exclude body-worn camera footage from open record requests.
“What’s needed are policies in place to ensure that the video is reviewed at appropriate times, either because there’s a citizen complaint or for training purposes,” Friedman said, “or if unfortunately, there’s been a difficult incident such as an officer-involved shooting.”
Public input and stakeholders, Friedman says, are critical, not just when something goes wrong.
“The public needs to have a voice in what those policies are,” Friedman said. “The importance of having a policy up front that makes sure that cameras are used in ways that meets the purpose for which they were purchased.”
Friedman says that in the future, he believes body cams will become “the norm” for law enforcement.
Creating ‘Muscle Memory’ Among Officers
Police in Milford, Connecticut, a shoreline city with a population of around 55,000, have had body cameras since 2011, before the state-funded program existed. Milford Chief Keith Mello said that at the time, the department was concerned with a police-civilian interaction that was captured through a series of cell phone videos.
“When we got these cell phone videos, they were just small snippets and they would always show you only the ugly parts of the use of force,” Mello said. “Let’s face it — any use of force is ugly and it’s not something that people are comfortable watching and certainly that’s understandable.”
Mello, who’s also the chairman of the state’s Police Officers Standards and Training Council and incoming president of Connecticut’s Police Chief Association, said the incident changed his perspective and lead him to want to be able to see what happened during the entire incident, not just clips, especially when use of force is involved.
“It shows the efforts that we go through to try to provide quality service and when it comes to the use of force efforts that we go through to avoid using force, to de-escalate that force,” Mello said. “And just as important is when that doesn’t happen and when there’s an overreaction or there’s a mistake or there’s simply bad behavior on the part of law enforcement video helps determine that as well.”
Mello said they’re working with the departments across the state that have body cameras to “create a muscle memory” for turning on the body cameras.
“What concerns us is that the public sometimes may assume that we didn’t turn it on intentionally, and I find that to be less the case,” Mello said of officers new to wearing the cameras. “it’s more just human behavior, they just plain forget.”
“What’s important especially with local law enforcement when you have over a hundred police departments, is we want consistency,” Mello said. “We want to make sure the public has a right to expect consistency because law enforcement knows no boundaries, and so they should have a right to expect that the police department they live in adheres to the same principles as the police department where they work, where they visit.”
According to Mello, body cameras can help police officers do their jobs better, document evidence and offer a greater level of transparency to the public.
While some studies of police departments across the country have reported a decrease in the use of force and positive results from adopting body cams, like in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Rialto, California, a 2019 report from George Mason’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy contends that, “Although officers and citizens are generally supportive of body-worn camera use, body-worn cameras have not had statistically consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ view of police.”
The report examined 70 published studies of body-worn cameras (BWCs,) with 52 originating from the United States.
The studies were broken down into six categories:
- The impact of BWC on officer behavior
- Officer attitudes about BWCs
- The impact of BWCs on citizen behavior
- Citizen and community attitudes about BWCs
- The impact of BWCs on criminal investigations
- The impact of BWCs on law enforcement organizations
The researchers suggest that the “rapid adoption” of BWCs across the country “has been propelled by highly publicized events in this decade involving (often) White police officers killing (often) unarmed Black individuals.”
They trace the shift to Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in 2012, followed by Michael Brown’s in 2014 and Freddie Gray’s in 2015, though Martin was not killed by a police officer. Those incidents, and others, were captured on civilian cell phone camera videos. According to the report, researchers believe that there’s “likely to be a growing expecting among the public that adopting BWCs is a marker of a responsive, transparent and legitimate police organization.”
The Cost Of The Cloud
One of the biggest challenges facing departments seeking to make body cams a part their policing is the cost. While Connecticut’s grant program funds the initial purchase of the cameras and a year’s worth of data storage, it falls on each department to keep financing the program and its related software. The online cloud storage for Hartford’s 325 camera costs an additional $237,000. Annually per camera, it costs $240 for a warranty, $250 for cloud storage and $180 for access to Axon Evidence, the cloud-based device data management system. In 2015, the Department of Justice invested $20 million in body-worn cameras for departments across the country
The Washington Post reported that some police departments in small jurisdictions have ended their body camera programs because of the cost and cited financial and workload strains on prosecutors. A 2016 DOJ report stated that for agencies that had not purchased body cameras, 77% gave cost as the reason why they hadn’t acquired them.
In the fall of 2018, the Policing Project hosted a cost-benefit analysis conference that evaluates policing from beyond a literal dollars and cents standpoint. It included a panel-discussion on body cameras.
“Anytime you evaluate a tool that the police are using or a policy, you have to take into account not only how much the camera costs but also intangible costs and benefits,” Friedman said, the faculty director of NYU’s Policing Project. “Cameras might be expensive but they might increase community trust. It’s easier to put a value on the cost of a camera instead of community trust.”
The Problem With The Federal Body Cam Ban
According to The Washington Post, federal agents do not wear body cameras and prohibit local officers from wearing them during joint operations. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields removed Atlanta officers working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service because of the ban.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, officers were removed from a federal marshals’ task force for continuing to wear their body cameras. Officers with Washington D.C.’s Metro Police Department comply with the federal rule when working on federal task forces.
Two members of the U.S. House recently reintroduced a bill that would require federal uniformed officers to wear body cameras that did not get a 2018 Congressional hearing.
The Washington Post reported that a Justice Department official said its body camera ban is related to “safety and security concerns, such as protecting sensitive or tactical methods used in arresting violent fugitives or conducting covert investigations.”
“It really hurts our standing with the community when we don’t have body-worn cameras,” said Art Acevedo, Houston’s police chief and the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Soon, Acevedo says they plan to change department policy so that officers on SWAT teams will wear body cameras as they execute search and arrest warrants. He noted the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old man in Memphis by U.S. Marshal deputies serving an arrest warrant as a concerning incident.
“We need our federal partners to come into the 21st Century and and agree that transparency builds trust and trust is a win for everybody,” Acevedo said.
Acevedo says they began conversations with the Department of Justice more than a year ago with then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and have continued with current Attorney General William Barr regarding the federal ban on body cameras in the “interest of transparency accountability and and in an effort to try to build legitimacy across the nation.”
“You can’t be with the mindset, do as we say and not as we do,” Acevedo said. “We can’t have the federal government investing hundreds of millions of the taxpayer dollars across the nation and then turn around and say, ‘Well, wait a minute, it’s good for the locals, but it’s not good for us.’ They know that this is a huge concern, we put it on their radar.”
In 2016, the Department of Justice surveyed nearly 4,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and found the following as the top reasons for acquiring body cams:
- To improve officer safety
- To improve evidence quality
- To reduce civilian complaints
- To reduce agency liability
- To improve accountability
- To make cases more prosecutable
- To improve officer professionalism
- To improve community perceptions
- To reduce use of force
For local and state law enforcement agencies that actively use body cameras, the federal government’s ban is both a contradiction and a liability for their officers involved in task forces and joint investigations.
Acevedo says that if the DOJ doesn’t change their stance by the end of the summer, he plans to take action.
“The president himself has made combating violent crime one of the highest priorities for his federal agencies,” Acevedo said. “Ultimately if [the] DOJ doesn’t come up with an agreement, we’ll probably end up calling for the president to issue an executive order and make them do the right thing.”
Updated 7/1/2019: This story has been updated to include the release of the Axon Ethics Board’s first report.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.