In a statement yesterday, Ferguson's police department announced that it is committed to buying vest cameras for its officers. When it finally happens, it will be a great first step. And it will happen even faster if we ditch the bloated, expensive wearable cam tech cops use today for something accessible to every US precinct.
It seems likely that if the officer who killed Michael Brown had been recording his own actions, some key questions about why and how the unarmed teenager was shot might be answered — or it may not have happened at all. So the announcement that they're finally going to get them is very good news. And they will be hopefully joined soon by police departments nationwide; citizens and journalists have voiced their support for putting more cameras on police. There's a petition up at Change.org signed by over 100,000 people asking the Obama administration to require all law enforcement to wear them.
It's not a far-fetched dream. In London earlier this year, the city's police department put cameras on 500 cops as part of a pilot program. A New York ruling in April recommended that NYPD officers wear cameras which they'd be required to activate when conducting investigations. The mayor of the city of Hawthorne, which is located in South Los Angeles, wrote a moving statement about why he is introducing an mandatory camera ordinance later this month. And the LAPD reportedly plans to buy 600 cameras later this year. A study by the Police Executive Research Forum says about 25 per cent of US police departments use cameras already.
Feedback from the field has been mostly positive so far. In the city of Rialto, which is near Los Angeles, citizen complaints against cops dropped from 24 to three, and police reported that use-of-force incidents went from 61 to 25, according to the Wall Street Journal. Similar results were found in an eight-month study in Mesa, Arizona, where 50 cops wearing cameras received eight citizen complaints and the 50 without received 23 complaints. LAPD Sgt Dan Gomez described a situation to the Daily News where just the act of seeing an officer wearing a camera seemed to immediately calm an antagonistic person. "All of a sudden, the whole thing started to de-escalate," he said. "They were able to deal with whatever the situation was, and no additional enforcement action was needed."
But while dashboard cameras in patrol cars have become commonplace, especially for recording routine traffic stops, the body camera has not been as swiftly adopted. The biggest reason is price. The cameras that are being purchased and used by police today are like the tanks that rolled into St. Louis's suburban streets: expensive, bulky and heavily militarised.
The cameras most police forces use today are egregiously expensive, especially for a civic agency that's historically subject to budgetary woes. Take the AXON Flex by Taser, which is becoming the industry standard for "on-officer video" and is the model piloted in London and Los Angeles. It retails for $US600.
Take a look at this thing. First of all, it's HUGE, like wearing a walkie talkie from WWII. Plus it's made by Taser, which makes, you know, tasers. Accordingly, it's marketed like a weapon. The video doesn't really communicate that this is about protecting the public. It's about fear. And Terminator ripoff graphics.
While I get that you might want the camera to be ultravisible so criminals can see it, that thing looks incredibly awkward and unnecessarily intimidating. You can get a totally decent action camera for $US300 (we tested six of them earlier this year) that's far smaller and could be easily adapted to be worn in the same way as the Taser one on the shoulder or eyeglass frames. In fact, the glasses-mounted model works very well for police, which is why some departments have been discussing providing Google Glass for their officers. Better yet, how about we see Google working with police to have them help test future prototypes for free?
One point raised by critics is that even when police cameras are rolling, there's no guarantee that anyone will ever be able to see the footage they capture. According to San Diego reporter Sara Libby, who writes about her local police department over at CityLab, officers were wearing cameras during two controversial shootings earlier this year, yet the department has claimed that the video is not admissible as official public records. Libby's request for the footage was denied. Just because cops will have vest cams doesn't mean we'll ever see the footage.
And that's just one concern among many. When should the camera be on? The entire time an officer is on-duty? Only during an arrest? Isn't being recorded by cops a violation of our privacy? Those answers we'll find through the course of doing. What we shouldn't do is wait, when there could be lives at stake.
If we want to exercise our freedom to record our interactions with cops, there can't be a double standard. As more civilians are empowered to record police activity, this gives police the opportunity to provide their own documentation. And this should be as affordable, and accessible as a cheap mobile phone.
When virtually every American is carrying a device they can use to capture the every move of law enforcement and upload it immediately to Twitter, this small piece of technology will allow cities to tell both sides of the story on our streets. Money shouldn't be a barrier to the public good, and in this case it doesn't have to be. Let's help our police do it in a way that's as easy as possible. Ferguson is as good a place as any to start.
Picture: AP/Damian Dovarganes