Terrence M. Cunningham is police chief in Wellesley, past president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and first vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
There are numerous benefits associated with body-worn cameras that make it worthwhile for police departments to put them into use. Useful for documenting evidence, the cameras can also be a helpful tool for officer training; preventing and resolving public complaints, and strengthening police transparency, performance, and accountability. And given that police now operate in a world in which anyone with a cell phone camera can record video footage of a police encounter, body-worn cameras help police departments ensure events are also captured from an officer’s perspective.
In many instances, body-worn cameras have identified potential weaknesses within an agency, leading to such positive changes as new training programs or revised policies. Cameras can also help in evaluating claims that police have engaged in profiling. Capturing audio and video accounts of an encounter provides an objective record of whether profiling actually occurred.
Body-worn cameras can significantly improve how officers capture evidence for investigations and court proceedings. Recording the events at a live crime scene can help officers document their observations and capture spontaneous statements and impressions that may be useful in the later investigation or prosecution. Along with documenting encounters with members of the public, body-worn cameras can provide a record of interrogations and arrests.
The use of body-worn cameras does raise legitimate questions about privacy and trust. What are the privacy issues associated with recording victims of crime? How can officers maintain positive community relationships if they are required to record almost every type of interaction with the public? But we can address these privacy considerations. Officers can be required to activate their cameras during such encounters as routine traffic stops, arrests, searches, and interrogations, while keeping them off at other times. This can ensure officers are not compelled to record the types of casual conversations that are essential to building informal relationships within the community.
It should be noted that under current Massachusetts law, officers are legally required to inform subjects when they are being recorded and to obtain the person’s consent to record. Without corrective action by the legislature to waive that requirement for body-worn police cameras, most agencies will be reticent to take advantage of this technology.
Richard Clements is a Newton police officer and president of the Newton Police Association.
There are a number of reasons it is not a good idea to have police carry body cameras. First and foremost for the average street cop is that using these cameras will further erode our already vanishing opportunity to exercise officer discretion. If every interaction is going to be up for scrutiny, the ability to give a break to a kid who made a foolish, youthful mistake will no longer exist. Arrests will certainly skyrocket and lead to a more angry and untrusting public, further eroding relations between the police and the community.
Another concern for officers on the street is the possibility of someone trying to antagonize or coerce an officer into an altercation in hopes that the officer will react negatively. We have already seen an increase in such incidents in recent years with the advances in smart phone technology. It is a stressful enough job as it is, and we all take our fair share of abuse without having to worry about these factors. An added major concern for me is the potential for violent confrontations to turn deadly should a criminal feel the need to kill an officer in an attempt to take the camera to destroy evidence.
The potential cost also makes the camera-carrying idea impractical. Even if the program were initially funded with federal dollars, it would need to be a subject of union bargaining as a change in working conditions. This could result in unforeseen expenses to already cash-strapped municipalities. And who is going to be financially responsible for replacing the equipment? The federal government? Cities and towns? Finally, has anyone taken into consideration the cost of storing the extensive amount of video recordings that departments would accumulate.
We all need to keep in perspective the fact that in the recent cases making headlines the suspects — and all of them were in fact suspects — had allegedly committed crimes and failed to comply with the lawful commands of police officers, tragically leading to their deaths. There is an increasing lack of respect for law and order in the county. Is equipping cops with cameras going to fix that? I don’t think so.