Police officers are increasingly under the microscope. Almost literally. Now that the nightly news regularly features incidents where officers are being criticized for excessive force, even responsible members of the force are finding that having a camera thrust in their face is now just part of the job.
A white police officer was charged with murder this week in South Carolina after fatally shooting an unarmed black man running away from him. The death of Walter Scott was caught on video by a bystander, leading to a media frenzy. South Carolina lawmakers urged the public to remember that the officer who killed Scott is simply one bad apple among a state of good police officers, though police officials say the constant negative attention has an effect on even the most responsible police officials.
“It causes hesitation, and hesitation is a cause of risk,” said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations. Roberts said it’s difficult for officers who are being filmed not to second-guess their actions, even if they’re in an unsafe situation. “I’m not sure being on the camera is exactly the problem, but with most people I talked to the problem is how people will interpret the images that are captured are on them.”
The news media, he said, needs to edit video clips to fit within certain time windows: If CNN only has 15 seconds to show a clip of a New York City detective berating a foreign-born Uber driver, for instance, the audience wouldn’t know what led up to that incident.
Courts consistently have ruled that it’s legal for citizens to film police without an officer’s consent, just as long as the person filming doesn’t interfere with the situation. Police, to put it mildly, don’t like being recorded by witnesses. YouTube is littered with footage of officers going ballistic on people watching events unfold from yards away.
All of which helps explain why the law enforcement community, for the most part, has greeted the advent of police body cameras with such enthusiasm. Police have complained that bystander cameras can present a safety risk -- though the IUPA’s Roberts said he couldn’t recall any instances where they interfered with the situation -- and body cameras promise to show events from an officer’s perspective.
“They realize their potential audience is now the entire world,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Police who have nothing to hide have already long since recognized they’re likely to be filmed any time anything dramatic goes down in public. I think that any problems police have with cameras originate in their own minds.”
At the heart of the matter is a stark difference in ideology. Police critics say cameras are necessary to expose and curb abuses of power. The law enforcement community says cameras will lead to fewer lawsuits and false complaints.
“I just think agencies accept that people are filming everyone anyway,” said Lindsay Miller, senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum and an author of one of the only studies on how cameras are used. An unrelated study found that police body cameras lead to a more than 50 percent reduction in use-of-force complaints.
“A lot of the things that have been happening recently are really good opportunities to find some reforms and move agencies into a better place,” Miller said. “I think police welcome that.”