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Police Departments and Body Cameras

Though body camera technology is by no means a new technology, interest in equipping police officers with body cameras has skyrocketed over the last several months. This growing demand represents a public outcry for accountability in the wake of controversial police shootings, such as the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Where the stories of surviving witnesses--including the police officer--differ, advocates maintain that body camera recordings can serve to exonerate an innocent officer acting in self-defense or to provide evidence of an officer's unreasonable and unlawful escalation to deadly force.

Despite this benefit, some argue that body cameras are not the end-all to controversy surrounding police encounters. According to Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute, camera footage has significant limitations. While it does not destroy the evidential value of camera recordings, it is important to keep these limitations in mind when reviewing any camera recording. For example, a camera cannot record some danger cues, such as the "resistive tension" felt when an officer touches a suspect who intends to resist. A camera can also see more than the officer himself--things farther away, more details, peripheral objects--and shows an image faster than the officer could have processed it. Despite these limitations, Lewinski supports the deployment of body cameras as a method of reducing violent encounters between police officers and the public--he only argues that when these camera recordings are being analyzed, that the "human factor" of what the police officer experienced is also taken into account.

Another issue in the implementation of body cameras is the question of how much footage is available and to whom. On the one hand, if the purpose of implementing body cameras is to provide for transparency in police practice, an open policy allowing the viewing of the most footage seems to be best. On the other hand, however, body cameras worn by police officers record more than just contested issues of force. The cameras also record "distraught victims, grieving family members, people suffering from mental illness[,] and citizens exercising their rights to free speech and civil disobedience." They may also record inside of hospitals or inside the homes of suspects, witnesses, and victims. Legislatures must work to a balance of information--allowing the public to access these recordings to hold police officers accountable for their actions, while also avoiding infringing on individuals' privacy rights.

Ultimately, in a system with deteriorating trust in law enforcement, body cameras represent a way for police departments to show a commitment of accountability to the public. Though questions of implementation, regulation, and funding exist, a growing amount of police departments have been purchasing and utilizing body cameras in recent months. Locally, Chief Mike Yankowski of the Lansing Police Department has stated that all Lansing Police road patrol officers will be equipped with body cameras beginning in February 2016. The East Lansing Police Department has received eight body cameras of their own; a set of officers were trained and began wearing the cameras in December 2015. Officers who were not in this original training group are expected to undergo training by the end of February 2016.

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