A Camera on Every Cop


In a rare convergence of opinion, dedicated cops and community activists, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, agree: To help keep the peace and restore community confidence in law enforcement, more cops should wear cameras.

Police believe video evidence would help curb those who falsely cry, “Police brutality!” And civil rights advocates believe if cameras are rolling, officers will behave better and harass them less.

There’s a recent Justice Department study to back that up, and dramatic statistics from ongoing police camera programs show when video is introduced into the equation the use of force goes way down and so do the number of citizen complaints.

Each time there is a headline confrontation between police and the citizenry, the call for cameras comes up again. But since that deadly shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a few weeks ago, actions have replaced words.

Now, law enforcement agencies in about a dozen cities are outfitting officers with either body- or car-mounted video cameras. Among the cities, the aforementioned Ferguson; Flagstaff, Arizona; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Norfolk, Virginia and Miami Beach, Florida, announced its buying $3 million worth of video equipment for its police and other city employees who interact with the public.

The nation’s largest police force — New York City — is working on a pilot project to outfit cops with cameras. NYPD planners have been studying the Los Angeles PD’s program, which started in January and hopes to provide some 600 officers with video capability by the end of this year.

Even the Portland, Oregon, police department is now testing cameras despite a state law that requires pre-notification before videotaping. That law has caused some to wonder if a cop running into, say, a drug bust would have to shout out, “You are being recorded!” lest the video be tossed out of court. Portland PD is planning a department-wide roll out of the program soon.

It seems like a no-brainer. Give a cop a camera, make sure it’s recording at crucial times and there will be indisputable evidence if a conflict arises. Was it the officer or the suspect who inflamed the situation? Who threw the first punch? Who shot first? Actual video from the scene is far better evidence in court than what could be a biased eyewitness account.

But it is expensive. The price of each camera, which runs between $400 to $800 dollars depending on the model, can be a deal breaker for many police departments.

The LAPD, for example, was only able to launch its camera program after Hollywood’s rich and famous passed the hat and came up with $1.3 million.

Another fundraising idea comes from New Jersey where a just-signed law commands all municipal police departments to buy either dashboard or body cameras. The equipment will be paid for with higher fines on drunken drivers.

There’s also the monthly cost of storing, categorizing and handling all that video.

At the end of each shift, the officer returns the camera to a charging station, which then downloads all that day’s video to an assigned location. State laws vary, but video of a misdemeanor is, generally, saved for about five years. Video of a major felony will likely be stored in perpetuity. Add in the expense of making multiple copies of the video for use in court and it can cost the average-sized police department 10s of thousands of dollars more each year just to store, keep track of and duplicate all that video.

Then, of course, there are other considerations. Victims or people reporting crimes run the risk of being captured on videotape. There are privacy issues for bystanders who may be seen in the background of a crime scene and be unfairly tainted by association. Police unions worry that the video could be used against an officer by an unreasonable supervisor. The added stress of near-constant surveillance could wear on an officer. Those are surmountable problems.

In this day and age, when speculative media coverage can instantly inflame a situation, it is imperative we find ways to capture the truth and get it out to the public as soon as possible. There is no better way than a video camera. No matter what the cost.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net