Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot during an encounter with police in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, was recorded by a convenience store surveillance camera a few minutes before he was killed, according to police. Then, just after he died, a picture of his body was snapped by a Twitter user who claims to have seen the shooting.
Yet so far, no photograph has emerged to document exactly what happened between those photos, during Mr. Brown’s fatal encounter with Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who, the authorities said, shot him. The world is on track to capture nearly a trillion photographs in 2014; yet with all those cameras everywhere, that crucial moment went unsnapped. In an age otherwise saturated by images, this omission in the photographic record borders on the surreal.
Perhaps one day it won’t be possible. Police departments and their equipment suppliers are outfitting their officers with on-body cameras that promise to eliminate the photographic void we saw in Ferguson. The cameras, which police wear on their chests or sunglasses, allow them to record all of their encounters with suspects and residents. The videos are stored in a tamper-proof vault online, where they can be examined during legal proceedings or when questions arise regarding police officers’ conduct.
Body-mounted police cameras are in their infancy, but they’re built on tech trends long in the making, including the miniaturization of cameras and the rapid decline in prices of online storage that has given consumers things like Dropcam and Google Glass.
But the technology raises privacy concerns both for the police and the public, and there are no national guidelines for how they should be used. The crucial questions of when police should begin recording their work and who gets to decide which encounters should be recorded are still being worked out.
Still, the cameras have been embraced by civil libertarians,including the American Civil Liberties Union, and they’ve been snapped up by hundreds of police departments across the country. Though police unions were once ardently against these systems, much of the resistance has faded. Ina few small studies, on-body cameras have been shown to significantly reduce both complaints against officers as well as episodes in which officers use force. Consequently, they often pay for themselves by reducing the cost of litigation.
“When we first introduced this a few years ago, there was skepticism,” said Rick Smith, the chief executive of Taser International, whose Axon line of body cameras has been purchased by more than 1,200 police agencies in the United States. “Now every police officer knows that they’re being recorded by someone on a smartphone — and every police chief I talk to says it’s not a matter of if, but when, they’ll be using on-body cameras.”
In 2012, Taser began selling its most advanced body camera, the Axon Flex, which can be clipped to an officer’s sunglasses, hat, helmet or epaulets. The Flex, which sells for $599 a unit, captures a wide-angle view that is close to what an officer sees while on patrol. Other cameras, including those made by Vievu, Taser’s largest competitor, clip to an officer’s shirt or belt. Because on-body cameras also capture high-fidelity audio, watching their videos offers a strangely intimate view of police work, as if you’re playing a video game.
Throughout an officer’s shift, Taser’s camera is constantly recording what it sees. But most of its images are kept in a 30-second buffer, after which they’re discarded. The unit begins saving longer segments of video — and begins capturing audio — only when an officer double-taps a control switch.
The 30-second buffer is a way of allowing officers to essentially record events that began in the past. “Say the officer sees someone run a red light — obviously the officer didn’t know that was going to happen,” Mr. Smith said. “But once he starts recording, we go back and grab that 30 seconds before that.”
The buffer includes just video, not audio, which is saved after the officer hits Record. The video-only buffer is meant to protect officers’ privacy.
Taser’s Axon cameras are paired with the company’s online storage service, Evidence.com, for which police departments pay a monthly fee of $15 to $55 per officer, depending on how much storage space they use.
At the end of each shift, an officer plugs the camera into a charging dock, and all videos are uploaded to Evidence.com. Police departments determine how long videos are retained; often retention times are related to the statute of limitations for the episodes the videos depict. Departments also set policies on who can watch the videos, and Evidence.com keeps an audit trail of all views.
One question about the deployment of on-body cameras concerns which encounters should be recorded, and when. Scott Greenwood, a civil rights lawyer who focuses on police misconduct and who also consults with police departments considering deploying camera systems, recommends that police adopt a policy requiring officers to record nearly all contacts with people.
“It’s most protective of the officer, of the members of the public, and of the agency if you record all of them and don’t allow officers discretion to decide which things to record and which not to record,” he said.
Mr. Greenwood said he has seen instances in which officers have deliberately tried to obscure a camera’s field of view before approaching a civilian. As a result, he encourages departments to construe an officer’s failure to record an encounter in which misconduct is later claimed as a negative strike in any proceedings against the officer. To ensure civilian privacy, Mr. Greenwood suggests that police departments exempt some videos captured in private homes from public records requests.
But not all of these guidelines are being adopted. In Mesa, Ariz., where the police department now has about 160 cameras, a pilot test showed that when officers were given the discretion to record, many decided not to do so. Now the department has a mandatory recording rule, according to Mesa’s chief, Frank Milstead. Fort Worth, which plans to have 600 cameras deployed by the end of the year, does not require recording in most instances, though officers are encouraged to capture encounters with people.
Chief Milstead, of Mesa, said that in addition to reducing complaints, the cameras have been helpful in interviewing witnesses and suspects after a crime. “When you get them on video, they’re locked into a story that you can play back in court,” Chief Milstead said.
Cameras have also helped train new police and confront problem officers. “We had a lawsuit we just settled, where you could see the officer was about to go toward this woman, and just then the camera turns off,” said Michael Chitwood, the chief of police in Daytona Beach, Fla. “When the camera comes back on, her front teeth are knocked out.”
The officer claimed that the camera malfunctioned, but a forensic examination by Taser concluded that the camera was working perfectly.
“We settled the lawsuit because of that question, Why would you want the camera off?” Chief Chitwood said. “You turn the camera off because you knew you were going to knock her teeth out.” The officer later resigned.
By shedding light on such encounters, Taser argues that cameras can do more than simply resolve individual disputes. “This helps us address the whole relationship between a police department and their community,” Mr. Smith said. “When that relationship gets off, really bad things happen.”