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Protect And Serve (And Record): The Role Of Body Cameras For Police And Communities

Minneapolis police officer with a light blue shirt wears a body camera.
Tony Webster
CC BY-SA 2.0
Body-worn cameras, like the Axon camera this Minneapolis officer is wearing, will be worn by almost every peace officer in Colorado by 2023.

Body-worn cameras have long been a staple of police reform efforts. Activists, civil rights groups, politicians and law enforcement value the accountability boost they provide. The cameras have a wide range of uses and some rather unclear impacts on police-community interactions.

A 2018 survey by the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board found that 47 of about 240 law enforcement agencies statewide already use body cameras. About a third of the agencies did not respond, so exactly how many departments must buy cameras to meet the new requirement is unknown. 

But there are plenty of options. Many companies are developing and marketing new systems, each with their own unique intricacies. Manufacturers like Wolfcom and Axon have videos online that break down the way their cameras work and showing them in action.

The Sterling Police Department in rural northeastern Colorado purchased their 25 cameras from Axon in 2016.

“We’re always striving to be professional and do what’s right,” Sterling Police Chief Tyson Kerr said. “And certainly there are times when we fall short of that, but by and large law enforcement is out there doing the right thing and for the most part the cameras reflect that.”

Accountability, both for officers and the people they interact with, is the most valuable benefit of body cameras, Kerr and several other chiefs said.

He was motivated to make the investment after the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri sparked outrage and protests.

“It was something that we wanted and so we made it a priority to, again, get ahead of this and to show transparency and accountability,” he said.

A history of brutality and deaths that cast doubt on cops’ ability to always “do what’s right” is, in part, what’s led activists, civil rights groups and politicians to push for body cameras in Colorado and nationally. 

“We’re gonna pass legislation to make sure police officers are going to held accountable,” state Rep. Leslie Herod told a crowd of protesters in Denver. “We’re going to be passing legislation with your support to make sure that we have laws on the books to correct and adjust some of the injustices that we’ve been seeing for a very long time.”

Body cameras are a key component of the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act authored by Rep. Herod. All peace officers in the state will be required to wear and activate them during most contacts with the public while on duty by 2023.

If a complaint is filed about an officer’s actions, the law requires departments to share footage of the incident within 21 days. It does give them more time if the video’s contents would interfere with an active investigation and requires redaction of some sensitive situations, like mental health crises or nudity. 

“So, what you’d want to do with a body camera, we’d want to see fewer uses of force, lethal and non-lethal, on people who are being contacted by police,” said John Hollywood, senior operations researcher and head of the Center for Quality Policing at Rand Corporation. “From the other side you’d want to see fewer assaults on police officers.”

But those impacts are less than guaranteed, research shows. And as several police chiefs told KUNC, the benefits of having body cameras can be much more wide ranging for their departments. 

What Body Cameras Actually Do

Southwest of Sterling is the city of Brush. Their police department has had body cameras since 2018, but will need to upgrade to an entirely new system to meet the law’s requirements. The cost could be between $100,000 to $120,000 for a five-year lease, Chief Derek Bos said.

“$100,000 is a significant portion of our budget being that we’re a small rural community,” he said.

He’s unsure if the money will come out of the department’s budget or another city program. And there are grants police can apply for which could lighten the load.

While Bos is concerned about the cost and what he sees as unnecessarily “far-reaching” body camera rules in the law, he admits the cameras have been useful — particularly when it comes to court evidence.

“Having body-worn cameras has greatly reduced the amount of time the officers spend in court,” he said. “It has given much better credence to most of our cases. It's enhanced courtroom testimony.”

11 miles away in Fort Morgan, interim police chief Jared Crone agrees that they are a boon for prosecution efforts. His department is upgrading their six-year-old camera system after they maxed out their video storage capacity.

“Now sergeants can review it for training purposes,” he said. “Good and bad, those kinds of things. That’s another aspect of it the public isn’t aware of.”

Other chiefs agreed that footage can serve as real-world examples to teach officers how they should or shouldn’t behave in a given situation.

“They help us 99.9% of the time,” Breckenridge Police Chief James Baird said, basing that assessment on his time as police chief in the much bigger city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Breckenridge does not have cameras currently, but Baird was already shopping around for them before the bill’s announcement.

“We were gonna have them regardless of the legislation,” he said. “So that was just, you know, that kind of gave us a time frame but realistically we’ll be up and rolling way before that. So I think body cameras are always worth it.”

But, in the same breath, these chiefs also emphasize that their officers rarely act inappropriately. And they said the cameras more often vindicate officers’ actions and prevent frivolous citizen complaints. 

“My experience with my former employer in Ann Arbor was that they helped us 50 times for every one time that there was something we wish didn’t happen on video,” Baird said.

“It’s very rare that we have to review camera footage based on a complaint,” said Fort Morgan Interim Police Chief Jared Crone. “I don’t know how many. Maybe over the last, I’ll just say five years, there’s maybe been a handful.”

What Body Cameras May Or May Not Do

“The evidence on body-worn cameras has been fairly mixed,” said John Hollywood of the Rand Center for Quality Policing, adding that the research tends to be “positive-ish” in its conclusions.

Hollywood says the “best hypothesis” researchers have is that requiring officers to turn on the cameras during contacts (which the new state law does) and announce that they are recording (which state law doesn’t) tends to lead to better outcomes. One group of European researchers released studies of departments across America and the world in the last few years that showed cameras reduced use of force and assaults against officers while another of their studies reached the opposite conclusion. The researchers cautioned against abandoning body-worn cameras based on that study though, saying much more research still needs to be done. 

Officers turning their cameras on during an intense situation can “backfire” and escalate things, Hollywood added. And even their effectiveness after an incident is questionable.  In 2017, at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security, researchers at Johns Hopkins looked at 102 studies and found large gaps in knowledge about how the characteristics of camera footage (like lighting or field of view) and the characteristics of the person watching it (like race and gender) affect interpretations of what happened. 

“Sometimes situations where reasonable people can disagree on the relative actions that the officers did or what the bystanders did,” Hollywood said. “That’s where you can kind of have the biggest problems and the body worn camera doesn’t help there.”

Take the case of De’Von Bailey, who was shot in the back by Colorado Springs police while running away. The body camera footage of his death exonerated officers in the eyes of a grand jury, but was simultaneously seen as damning evidence to people like Rep. Leslie Herod.

Hollywood also says there is some concern that officers can use body camera footage to change their story if they can view the footage before or while writing up a report about a use of force incident.

“I think there’s been strong legal arguments to record what they thought they saw first, or what they experienced first,” he said. “And then maybe they can go back and look at (the footage).”

Regardless of the complications and swirling questions about body cameras, like the citizen and victim privacy issues police chiefs said they worry about, Hollywood does think cameras are very important to policing.

“If George Floyd being murdered hadn’t been caught on camera I expect some things may have still happened because the situation was so egregious,” he said. “But there is a risk that those officers, Derek Chauvin in particular, could have gotten away with this to some extent.”  

And the new state law may provide an opportunity for researchers worldwide to better understand the intricacies of body cameras and what does or doesn’t work best.

“If we can actually get good use of force data,” he said. “That would be gold. We really don’t have much right now.”

The author of Colorado’s police reform law, Rep. Herod, puts a lot of stock into the use of cameras too. And, in a nod to the Defund Police movement, she said departments that are concerned about cost “need to divest in other things in order to make that (body-worn cameras) happen. And that is intentional.”

 “They need to prioritize the body cameras,” she said. “They haven’t been and it’s time to.”

KUNC's Michael De Yoanna and Leigh Paterson contributed to this story. 

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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