New York's police department, the largest in the country, is fast-tracking plans to test body cameras on patrol officers. In a conference reported by The New York Times, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that selected officers could be wearing the small but fairly visible cameras as soon as Friday, and the NYPD confirmed that 50 will be running by this weekend. "When something happens, to have a video record of it, from the police officers' perspective, is going to help in many, many ways," said de Blasio. "And God forbid, when something goes wrong, we are going to have a clearer sense of what happened."
The NYPD was ordered to test body cameras last year as part of a harsh ruling against its widely criticized stop-and-frisk program, which a judge found disproportionately and unfairly targeted people of color. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton then announced a pilot program in September of 2014, after the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri launched a debate about police accountability and racism. After a three-month trial period, the NYPD hopes to expand the program to more of its roughly 35,000 officers, joining a growing number of police departments that are adopting body cameras as an accountability and evidence-gathering tool.
In the wake of Brown's death, his family has pushed for widespread adoption of police cameras, which could have led to the indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. But in New York, the news came shortly before a grand jury dismissed charges in the clearly videotaped killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officers.
"I'm very excited personally."
"I'm very excited personally," said Bratton in an interview with CBS today. "I'm a great supporter of technology in policing. I think it will eliminate an awful lot of the 'he said, she said' situations, where we don't have video." While they're far from ubiquitous, the cameras have gained popularity in recent years: the NYPD will be following the lead of London; Washington, DC; and Ferguson itself, among others. On Monday, President Barack Obama announced his support of body cameras, promising to spend $75 million over three years supporting police departments that adopted them. The program is supposed to fund the purchase of 50,000 cameras; by comparison, the two leading producers of police cameras say they've sold a total of about 70,000 to date.
The NYPD's pilot was launched with $60,000 in funds with the nonprofit New York City Police Foundation, and Obama's plan could put similar programs within the reach of other police departments. "I think it's an incredible incentive," said Jim Bueermann, the president of the (unrelated) Police Foundation, a law enforcement-focused think tank based in Washington, DC. Individual cameras can cost a few hundred dollars apiece, but they have to be paired with a secure method of storing video, whether that's an in-house system or an online service like Taser's Evidence.com.
NYPD officials hope that the devices could pay for themselves by reducing complaints and claims payouts. Theoretically, this could happen either because cameras put police officers on their best behavior, or because they'll be able to use video evidence to defend themselves when accused of misconduct. There's not yet enough evidence to support this hope, but a 2012 experiment in the Rialto, California police department was promising. Researchers found that police with cameras used force roughly half as often as those with them, and the department as a whole saw a 60 percent reduction in force and an 88 percent reduction in complaints compared to the previous year. A later test in Mesa, Arizona also found a drop in complaints, and a report by the Police Executive Research Foundation found considerable support among members of law enforcement.
New York's last mayor thought body cameras were "a nightmare"
There has, however, been opposition. Police unions in Miami have fought plans to test body cameras; one complaint argued that having to turn on recording before an arrest or traffic stop would distract officers, while another said one pilot program's lack of rules made it "reckless" and a "free for all." Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg came out firmly against them last year. "It would be a nightmare," he said after the stop-and-frisk ruling. "We can't have your cameraman follow you around and film things without people questioning whether they deliberately chose an angle, whether they got the whole picture in."
Civil liberties advocates have been similarly conflicted, but for different reasons. The ACLU is generally in favor of police body cameras, but it's adamant that the program will only work if police aren't allowed to selectively choose what to record, and if the resulting videos can't be altered or leaked to the public. Senior analyst Jay Stanley sees Obama's support as a chance to shape good policy. "I would like to see the federal government use its powers, including its power of the purse, to encourage police departments to wrap the introduction of this technology in strong policies," he says. "There are a lot of ways that this technology could fail at [the] goal of building trust."
It's not clear exactly how the NYPD will handle asking officers to record their interactions. And, unfortunately, it's all too clear that cameras can only do so much to prevent police violence. There was little question of how Garner, who was killed a few weeks before Brown, died — he was restrained by police and choked after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes. But juries declined to indict the officers involved in either case. More recently, there's clear video of Cleveland police shooting black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed for carrying a pellet gun designed to look like a real weapon. And in other cases, police are learning how to deal with the fact that it's all too easy for an officer to defeat the cameras, by accident or intention: they can just never turn them on in the first place.