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After Ferguson, police should be wearing on-body cameras

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Civil rights attorney and others suggest more transparency is key to avoiding another tragedy

UPDATED August 18 with quotes from Taser rep.

After conflicts between protestors and police in Ferguson, Mo. yesterday — particularly in the wake of militarized police officers arresting Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters working in a nearby McDonald's — some have suggested that on-body cameras should be more widely used among on-duty police. The theory is that by recording every situation and every conflict that an officer encounters, law enforcement and citizens have an unquestionable account of what really happened. It might also stop an officer from crossing the line.

The Verge produced a story and documentary last year about Axon Flex, perhaps the most advanced of these on-body police cameras, and the advantages and disadvantages of the technology. In that story, civil rights attorney Scott Greenwood talked about his work to establish concrete rules regarding on-body police cameras. I asked him to talk a little about how on-body cameras could've helped the situation in Ferguson last night.

"The proper use of OBRS is going to be a very important part of how these agencies restore legitimacy and public confidence."

"On-body recording systems [OBRS] would have been incredibly useful in Ferguson," he says. "This is yet another controversial incident involving one officer and one subject, a minority youth who was unarmed," a reference to Michael Brown, who was killed by police on August 9th. "OBRS would have definitively captured whatever interaction these two had that preceded the use of deadly force." Armed with footage from an on-body camera system, it's possible that police would've had no option but to take swift action against the officers involved — or if Brown's behavior wasn't as eyewitnesses describe, perhaps protests wouldn't have swelled in the first place. Instead, the citizens of Ferguson are left with more questions than answers.

Moving forward, Greenwood doesn't see how on-body cameras can be avoided. "I see no way moving forward in which Ferguson police do not use OBRS," he says. "The proper use of OBRS is going to be a very important part of how these agencies restore legitimacy and public confidence."

There need to be rules, of course — and in his capacity working with the ACLU, Greenwood has helped to sketch out some of those rules. But when situations like Ferguson emerge, it seems reasonable to think that more transparency and more public records are what's needed, not less.

Ferguson is "a powder keg," said Steve Tuttle, Vice President of Communications at Taser International. "In terms of setting off a lot of ideas for where policing is going, this past week has really ignited the issue of, What do we want our police officers to use on the streets? When it comes to riots, to crowd control, to basic policing, people are asking, Do you want there to be cameras available? And we’ve been saying since 2006 that you absolutely do." Taser’s X26 conducted electrical weapon (CEW) — the stun gun that people think of when they think "Taser" — has been outfitted with a "Taser CAM" for the last eight years. It’s Axon Flex device takes that to the next level, separating the camera from the weapon.

Tuttle — agreeing with people on the ground in Ferguson that "what has to happen is transparency" — argued that "no one’s out on the street [protesting in Ferguson] because they have all the answers" about what happened when Michael Brown was shot and killed. Taser’s on-body police camera would have allowed citizens "to see the interaction in its entirety."

A recent Motley Fool article (written by a Fool contributor named Rick Smith — who is a Taser investor, but not the company’s CEO) made similar points yesterday. "If the officer's squad car had been equipped with a dashboard video camera, or if the officer himself [involved in Michael Brown’s shooting] had been wearing an on-body video camera such as the AXON device developed by TASER International, it's likely there would be no dispute as to what actually happened on Saturday — or who was to blame," the piece read. "But it wasn't, and he wasn't — and so there's no clear record of the event."

What’s not guaranteed, however, is that the officer who shot Michael Brown would have engaged the Axon’s recording device. (Axon requires officer to click a button to begin recording.) Regardless, Tuttle and Taser investors are not the only people arguing that on-body police cameras could have significantly helped to clarify a lot of what happened last Saturday when Michael Brown was killed.

"I’ll back the ACLU all day long on this," Tuttle says. "Having body-worn cameras on police officers is the future of policing."