Cameras on cops

Our view: Requiring police to wear tiny video cameras that record their interactions with the public could help officers do their jobs better and reduce citizen complaints

September 16, 2013

Over the years there have any number of citizen complaints about police use of excessive force and other misconduct, including some high-profile cases where suspects died while in custody. But too often investigations into such complaints end in a situation where it's the witnesses' word against the officers', leaving neither side feeling that justice has been done.

That's why we were intrigued by Baltimore City Del. Frank Conaway Jr.'s proposal last week to require police in Maryland to wear tiny cameras that record all their interactions with the public. The devices, which attach to an officer's uniform, badge or glasses, provide an objective record against which officials can sort out conflicting testimony and resolve many of these disputes. Given that Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has said one of his most immediate tasks is restoring trust between his department and the public it serves, he should seriously consider Delegate Conaway's idea as a means of achieving that goal.

This is new technology that only recently has been introduced in a few police departments around the country. But the communities that have adopted it — including police departments in California, New Mexico and Texas — not only have seen a drastic reduction in the use of force by their officers but a sharp decline in complaints against police as well. The legislative requirement Delegate Conaway is proposing may be a bit premature, but Baltimore City ought to be planning now to create at least a pilot program in some of its troubled neighborhoods to see whether the cameras make a difference.

The only law enforcement agency in Maryland that is currently using such devices is the Laurel Police Department, where Chief John McLaughlin has purchased 19 cameras for his 68 sworn officers at a cost of about $2,000 apiece. Chief McLaughlin admits that's not cheap, but he says the benefits of the system are worth it. Since his department began using the devices six months ago, the number of incidents in which police have had to use force have plummeted, and citizen complaints are way down.

He attributes the change to the camera's presence, which he says has a restraining effect on both his officers and the citizens with whom they come into contact. As a result, potentially volatile situations are less likely to escalate to the point where police need to resort to force to resolve problems. "When people know they are being videotaped, they become a lot more compliant and courteous because they know their words are being captured," the chief says.

That apparently goes for his officers as well: Mr. McLaughlin says the devices his department uses are point-of-view cameras attached to either a hat brim or glasses, so they record exactly what an officer is seeing, hearing and doing throughout every encounter with the public. That capability also makes them an excellent training tool for new recruits and less experienced officers, who can be shown the mistakes they make rather simply accepting the judgment of their instructors. It also allows commanders to keep tabs on officers prone to malingering or abusing their authority.

So far, the cameras haven't been adopted by any big-city police departments comparable to Baltimore's, but that will soon change. This year a New York federal judge ordered police there to start using the devices on a limited basis in areas of the city where citizen complaints over the department's controversial "stop-and-frisk" policy were highest. And eventually we expect the technology to become as common a tool of law-enforcement as stationary speed cameras and patrol car dashboard-mounted video recorders are now.

Some critics have charged that the expanded surveillance technology smacks too much of Big Brother, or that it could have a chilling effect on citizens' willingness to talk to police if they know their statements are being recorded. There are also constitutional questions about whether such statements could be used as evidence in court. These are all issues that will have to be clarified, and there may be some initial resistance among officers to using the devices that departments will have to overcome. But given the experience of police in cities where the cameras have been used and the obvious need to improve police-community relations in Baltimore, it's an idea worth exploring.

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