Police body cameras are popular, despite limitations
An autonomous camera may not blink, but that doesn’t mean it always can capture an entire story.
Police incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Tulsa, Okla. and Albuquerque have focused national attention on law enforcement’s decisions to use force, whether departments are transparent about their officers’ actions and if officers are held accountable.
Body cameras have been presented as a solution to these issues because, if the public can see what the officer saw, then questions about police decisions won’t have to be answered by weighing one person’s word against that of another.
But like all developing technologies, body cameras have limitations. They have limited fields of view, and body-mounted devices — often cheaper than head-mounted models — don’t move with the officer’s eyes.
West Valley police departments are facing these issues as they launch body-camera programs, request funding to outfit units with the gear, and develop protocols for storage and redaction of video.
“There is no perfect solution with body-worn cameras,” said Peoria police Cmdr. Douglas Steele, the department’s program administrator. “You are going to have limitations and issues no matter what you choose.”
Most West Valley cities say they want to outfit police with body cameras and are invarious stages of developing plans to do so. Buckeye says it will start using body cameras this fall, and if the City Council approves funding this month, Goodyear hopes to launch around Jan. 1. El Mirage already has started using cameras, as has Peoria, which launched its pilot program in December.
The Glendale Police Department’s goal is to give officers body cameras this year and department administrators are determining use policies and what brand to buy, said Sgt. David Vidaure, a department spokesman.
Taser’s Axon Body cameras, for example, retail for $399 each, and the head-mounted Axon Flex model costs $599, according to the company’s website.
To develop its body camera program, Peoria police took a “global view” that considered best practices nationally and how other Valley agencies use the devices, Steele said. The department also considered the effect cameras would have on officers and the community, as well as how to address technical and logistical problems.
A review of the the cameras’ effectiveness is slated for July, Steele said.
“I don’t think body-worn cameras, or something to that effect, is ever going to go away,” Steele said. “It’s basically integrated into the public consciousness no matter what we do. To actually truly implement this program, it is very, very extensive and very labored.”
So far, response to body camera use has been “relatively positive,” Steele said. That’s one reason why Peoria wants to expand its program and will submit a federal grant application to help finance it.
Peoria had experimented with head-mounted cameras, which move with the officer’s field of view, but chose body-worn cameras because they were more comfortable and user-friendly, Steele said. The department has 54 Taser Axon Body cameras used by patrol, traffic and K-9 units, Steele said.
An ASU study shows complaints against police officers drop when a body camera is worn.
The cameras have a 137-degree field of view, which is “not quite fish eye or 100 percent panoramic, but it’s definitely … wider (than a regular lens),” Steele said. Still, an officer’s body movement can diminish what the camera is able to record. While there are options for high definition, low light or even infrared cameras, Peoria’s cameras do not have those features.
“But that isn’t the way the officer sees it,” Steele said. “So when you’re out in the dark, (our camera) sees what a human would see.”
Another limitation is that while body cameras can record what happened at a given point in time, they can’t account for human perception — what an officer believes they saw — or take into account what information the officer received or knew before he or she got there.
“There are all sorts of issues that the camera may not show you,” said Goodyear Police Chief Jerry Geier. “It is a tool that will capture certain things.”
Despite drawbacks, a year-long study on body cameras completed by the Rialto Police Department in Southern California showed a more than 50 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents as well as a significant reduction in citizen complaints. Geier cited the agency’s statistics as reasons why his department has requested funding for body cameras.
If the Goodyear City Council approves the request, Geier hopes to “go live” with a body-camera program at the start of 2016. Before that, he plans to convene a committee of stakeholders to develop policy on, among other issues, whether to record anonymous tips, juveniles or inside private residences.
Goodyear experimented with head-mounted cameras in 2013, but Geier said his gut feeling is that they “will probably” choose a body-worn device. To handle the anticipated requests to see Goodyear police body-camera videos, Geier said the department would likely hire a full-time records person to handle redaction of people like victims and bystanders.
“We want to be respectful of people’s privacy,” Geier said. “We want to do the right thing and body cameras just help us to be that way to our residents. On the flip side of that, we know body cameras aren’t the only answer.”
Steele agreed, and said he believes a shift is coming in how an officer’s actions are judged. Rather than just examining what happened in the moment they chose to use force, officials will begin looking at what steps led them to that fork in the road.
“(A) law enforcement agency needs to understand it’s the community that gives you the authority and the right to be their police department and the minute we don’t do that, then it doesn’t matter whether or I have a camera on or not,” Steele said.