Police Body Cams Pit Violence Against Privacy

Israeli policemen will soon be equipped with the cameras – but will they use them properly? And who will have the authority to delete or edit files?

A file photo of a Los Angeles police officer wearing a body-mounted camera.
Damian Dovarganes, AP

The Israel Police’s announcement a few months ago that policemen would soon be equipped with body cameras created little stir. Yet these cameras could have a major impact on the police’s work.

The small video cameras are attached to the policeman’s uniform and record his interactions with the public. According to the police website, they are meant to “make the police’s work more transparent, which is an important tool in building confidence in contacts between the policeman and the citizen.”

But from the few studies that have been carried out of these cameras in other countries, it’s far from clear that this is actually what will happen. Indeed, in summer 2012, when local activists tried to reignite the previous summer’s social justice protests, policemen used massive force against them despite knowing that the event was being filmed by the media.

Eric Garner fatal arrest video.

In New York two years ago, passersby filmed policemen choking a man to death during an attempt to arrest him. That incident led United States President Barack Obama to allocate $250 million for closed-circuit cameras and another $20 million for body cameras for the New York police.

But Dr. Barak Ariel, a criminologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted in a recent article that in all the footage of this incident broadcast by the media, the policemen involved appeared to be well aware that they were being filmed, and some even looked directly at the cameras as they continued to choke the man.

Ariel, one of the world’s leading researchers on the issue of body cameras, warns that they “aren’t a wonder drug.” Nevertheless, he believes that in the absence of any alternative, they are “a very effective tool against both police brutality and baseless complaints against policemen. Today, we have no way of checking a policeman’s statements about his work, of knowing whether he is corrupt or whether he did his job properly.”

The Israeli police aren’t the first to adopt body cameras; dozens of police forces worldwide have already done so. The cameras’ fans, who include human rights organizations, politicians and jurists, believe the knowledge that everything is being filmed is liable to reduce violence by both policemen and members of the public, and prevent baseless complaints.

But today, several years after these cameras first entered operational use, some argue that the move was made too quickly and without enough research. While some studies have been published, including a small number that involved controlled experiments, they are insufficient to determine who actually benefits from the cameras, and under what conditions. Most of the studies focused on interactions between the police and the public, but almost all put the emphasis on the policemen. Thus less is known about how they impact the public.

How will the cameras affect the police’s work? Will violent policemen change their behavior? How will members of the public respond to being filmed? Will more crimes be solved? Who will store the footage? For how long? And for what purposes? Who will decide when to activate the cameras? All these questions still have no answers, yet the cameras are already on the way.

Americans have been talking about the need for constant monitoring of police behavior ever since the case of Rodney King, a young black man from Los Angeles who was severely beaten by four white policemen after they arrested him for speeding in March 1991. The assault was filmed and the footage broadcast, and the policemen’s subsequent acquittal in court sparked massive riots in Los Angeles in 1992.

Rodney king beating video.

Ariel says that the issue is largely linked to the organizational culture of the police force and the individual policeman’s attitudes when he is on his own. In his opinion, “that’s what determines how the policeman will use his camera, affecting what and how he records. It also determines to what degree using the camera depends on the individual policeman’s judgement.”

Tony Farrar, police chief in Rialto, a town of 100,000 east of Los Angeles, conducted an experiment using body cameras (Ariel served as his consultant). In the experiment, 500 hours of police shifts were examined, with some policemen carrying cameras and some without them. The results were significant: Policemen wearing body cameras used 50 percent less excessive force against civilians, in comparison to those not carrying cameras. The study revealed another interesting feature: Among policemen carrying cameras and given discretion as to when to record there were more violent incidents than with policemen whose cameras were on all the time. In other words, the experiment showed problems arising when policemen have a choice of when and what to document.

A few weeks ago the Washington Post ran a story in which two researchers from George Mason University in Virginia, Cynthia Lum and Christopher Koper, reported that police forces and local authorities around the world are rushing to use such cameras without knowing much about the ramifications of using this tool. Lum said that the expectation is that the cameras will reduce the chances of being hurt by the police or of false accusations being made against policemen, but wondered whether people would hesitate to turn to the police when they’re in trouble if they know they’re being recorded. She believes that it’s important to investigate and take into account how these cameras affect the motivation to file complaints by weaker segments of society: victims of family violence, elderly people, minorities and migrants.

Christopher argued that the legal implication of documenting events only from the policeman’s perspective should be investigated. It’s unclear how a suspect or indicted person’s trial will proceed. Will using cameras facilitate more plea bargains? Will it allow fair trials or will the video clips automatically lead to convictions? Will one be able to believe a policeman who failed to document an incident?

Prof. Seth Stoughton, a legal expert from the University of South Carolina, showed people video clips taken with body cameras documenting violent confrontations between policemen and citizens. He then showed the same incident recorded by a wider-angle camera and it turned out that what had seemed like violence was actually dancing. Stoughton warned against the inclination to adopt the version of the person documenting the incident. In his opinion, the expectations attached to body camera technology are overrated. These cameras are a tool, and like every tool there is a limit to what can be achieved with it, he says.

Police body cam Shows shooting of Rodrigo Garcia.

There are currently trials underway around the world, using systems in which the policeman has no discretionary options. The camera is turned on automatically at the onset of an incident and recorded files cannot be deleted. In Israel, the police are purchasing cameras but it’s still unclear to justice authorities what the procedures for using them will look like. They are preparing for a raft of problems, such as those that have already arisen around the world and are expected to recur here as well. For example, when a policeman does have control over documentation, what is his legal status in cases in which he stops documenting an event that could land him in trouble? Will this be considered obstruction of an investigation? How will this affect the handling of such a case by the courts? In some countries recorded files are kept only for a few months. In Britain, for example, they are kept for four months and then deleted if no use has been made of them. It’s unclear how long recordings will be kept in Israel.

It is also unclear who will have the authority to delete files. Will it be permissible to use a recording made in a house a policeman comes to by chance? Does filming inside a residence require a warrant? Will a policeman who took part in an incident be allowed to view the recording if a citizen files a complaint with the police? Some researchers warn against misuse of the tool, which could threaten privacy, becoming a “Big Brother” project. It’s clear, as Ariel says, that in order to fully utilize the potential of this technology an organizational culture of transparency and trust is required.

Police spokeswoman Commander Merav Lapidot said in response that body cameras will be brought in over the current year, and that “this is a move intended to increase transparency in police work, meant to facilitate the public’s trust in policemen, in their contact with the public.” Police officials would not relate to questions arising from the reported studies.