Last week, the Fort Worth City Council approved the purchase of 400 new body cameras for the Fort Worth Police Department from TASER International, Inc. The Fort Worth Police Department has been testing these units since 2010, in an effort to capture what happens when an officer is outside the view of dash-mounted cameras. With this latest purchase, Fort Worth police have more body-mounted cameras than any other agency in the United States. The cameras are a double-edge sword for the Department. The recordings will aid the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in prosecuting crimes. The recording may also record evidence of police wrong-doing that can be used against the department in criminal cases and civil suits.
The Axon Flex Cameras are small video recording devices that police officers can mount on their eyewear, ball caps, collars, helmets, or clothing. The cameras have a 30-second pre-event buffer; essentially the camera is on all the time so that when an officer hits the record button, it saves everything beginning 30-seconds prior to the record button being hit. The cameras also enhance images recording in low light. The recordings can be saved at the local police department or in the cloud through Evidence.com.
Accountability has been the biggest selling point for body-mounted cameras. Who watches the watchmen? The use of the body cameras was optimistically supported by the American Civil Liberties Union in their policy brief from October 2013: “Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.” ACLU’s generally favorable support is best explained with their main concern about use of technology placing too much power in the hands of officers and not enough in the hands of the public.
From the standpoint of law enforcement, body-mounted cameras are advantageous because the camera goes wherever the officer goes. Officers don’t have to stop to reposition cameras for field sobriety tests in DWI cases. Their pursuit on an evading or fleeing will be captured on video. If the city is sued after the use of force, an officer’s best defense might be captured on the recording. As the manufacturer puts it, “Testimony is interesting. Video is compelling.”
The Rialto Police Department in California was one of the early adopters on body-mounted cameras. Interestingly, since implementing the cameras, the Rialto Police Department saw a drop in the use of force from 60 incidents in 2011 to 25 the following year and citizen complaints went from 28 to 3 within the same time period. Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar believes the cameras offer more benefits than merely reducing complaints against the police, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better, and if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”
Others believe the body-mounted cameras are more trouble than they are worth. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a supporter of the use of technology in law enforcement, responded to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s order that certain precincts in New York use body-cameras saying, “officers cannot have cameraman follow them around and film things without people questioning whether they deliberately chose an angle, or whether they got the whole picture in.”
Fort Worth Corporal Tracey Knight told reporters: “These cameras are the future of policing. It’s the technology of tomorrow.” Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead explained the benefits of body cameras: “For first-level patrol officers that are young in their careers…this ensures that their decisions and their activities were fair and within policy. Without it, it is literally sometimes just their word against what we’re hearing from either the call, the suspect or the witnesses. For investigators…you’re getting real time and real life responses to questions directly related to a criminal investigation.” Richard Van Houten, President of the Fort Worth Police Association, cautiously supports the voluntary use of these cameras among its officers, acknowledging privacy concerns of victim’s and the community.
Whether Fort Worth Police Department’s use of the body cameras will be as successful as the Rialto Police Department’s is yet to be seen, but increasing support of use of body-cameras in police departments across the nation shows a growing trend of increasing police accountability as well as efficiency.