The last year has brought seemingly incessant and well-publicized clashes between police and the communities they’re supposed to serve, especially communities of color. Some advocates have suggested the implementation of body cameras and hundreds of police departments around the country have equipped some of their officers with recording devices in response.
The shift has not come without challenges, although the success is practically irrefutable in some instances. Sine deploying 319 body cameras two months ago, the police department of Birmingham, Alabama, has seen a 71 percent drop in citizen complaints and a 38 percent drop in use of for by police officers, Computer World reported.
Birmingham isn’t an outlier. According to a study on the Rialto, California, police department conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, over a 12-month period, body cameras reduced the force by 50 percent and complaints against police fell by 90 percent.
“This is a promising tool for police officers, which is likely to be a game changer not only for the professionalization of policing, but in terms of police-public relations,” Dr. Barak Ariel, the lead author of the study, told Newsweek.
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Ariel explained that the use of body cameras can change how officers react to situations. "Police subcultures of illegitimate force responses are likely to be affected by the cameras, because misconduct cannot go undetected — an external set of behavioral norms is being applied and enforced through the cameras,” he said.
“Police-public encounters become more transparent and the curtain of silence that protects misconduct can more easily be unveiled, which makes misconduct less likely.”
The Department of Justice also backs the use of body cameras. Despite privacy concerns, their October 2014 report concluded the “perceived benefits that body-worn cameras offer—capturing a video recording of critical incidents and encounters with the public, strengthening police accountability, and providing a valuable new type of evidence—largely outweigh the potential drawbacks.”
However, body cameras aren’t the perfect solution. Some police departments have come into serious logistical issues and have found the technology cost prohibitive. For example, Birmingham Police Department spent $180,000 on the cameras themselves, plus an additional $889,000 for a five-year contract with Taser International.
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That cost seems minimal when compared to the price of storing the footage. Birmingham Police Department purchased five terabytes, or 5,000 gigabytes, to store the footage on Taser’s file management system. Over the curse of two months, the department used one-and-a-half terabytes, meaning they’ll exceed their storage capacity in six months.
"That's the biggest problem with this system...the cost of the storage," Capt. William Brewer, who heads up Birmingham Police Department's Technology Division, told Computer World. "They do offer unlimited storage, but it's quite costly -- well above $1 million for the package we had looked at."
It’s also hard to delete footage. Even a simple DUI case can carry on for months or years depending on litigation, meaning departments can’t get rid of the footage. However, Brewer argues the financial cost is easily offset by the possibility of body cameras stopping lawsuits.
Charles Katz, a criminologist at Arizona State University who has conducted research with the Phoenix Police Department, also worries that some might be too optimistic about the capabilities of body cameras.
“Some people are thinking this is literally a magic bullet and it’s going to solve all our communities’ problems,” he told Newsweek. “It’s not going to address the fundamental, underlying problems within a community that take time to address.”
However, as Brewer argues, the implementation of body cameras could fix a serious failing in police-community relations - increasing public trust. Despite the financial costs, even the impression of transparency and a community’s belief that police are accountable might start mending the strained relationship.