Body cameras, with the proper understanding, have some distinct advantages. However, Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, stated that the body camera program was a “waste of money” and said to “Trash that. They’re in control of the body cameras,” referring to the police. “The video camera didn’t make a difference to the grand jury. What do we need body cameras for?”
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Once upon a time, when a law enforcement officer gave a lawful command, people listened. These days, when that doesn’t happen and there are question, everyone wants to run to the video tape. Even the ACLU supports this, saying, “Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”
Now almost every police department in the nation is actively pursuing body cameras for their officers. But the Force Science Institute (FSI), perhaps the nation’s leading institution on law enforcement use of force, recommends caution. Dr. Bill Lewinksi, the founder of FSI, pointed out 10 things every agency or grand jury should consider:
- A camera doesn’t follow your eyes or see as they see. Currently, a body camera is not an eye-tracker and doesn’t see everything an officer may see. A camera also doesn’t capture physiological factors such as stress and the various well-documented phenomena (tunnel vision, time slowing down, etc.) that occur in a use-of-force incident.
- Some important danger cues can’t be recorded. “Tactile cues that are often important to officers in deciding to use force are difficult for cameras to capture,” Lewinski said. “Resistive tension is a prime example. You can usually tell when you touch a suspect whether he or she is going to resist but that isn’t recorded on the camera. Suspect behavior that may appear innocuous on film to a naive civilian can convey the risk of mortal danger to you as a streetwise officer,” Lewinski said.
- Camera speed differs from the speed of life. Although body cameras record at a much faster rate than other cameras, Lewinski said, “Because of the reactionary curve, an officer can be half a second or more behind the action as it unfolds on the screen, which may not translate on film.”
- Cameras can see better in low light and pick up more detail then the human eye. On the other hand, cameras do not always deal well with lighting transitions. “Going suddenly from bright to dim light or vice versa, a camera may briefly blank out images altogether,” Dr. Lewinski said.
- Your body may block the view. “If you’re firing a gun or a Taser, for example, a camera on your chest may not record much more than your extended arms and hands. Critical moments within a scenario that you can see may be missed entirely by your body camera because of these dynamics, ultimately masking what a reviewer may need to see to make a fair judgment.”
- A camera only records in 2D. Because cameras don’t record depth of field—the third dimension that’s perceived by the human eye—accurately judging distances on their footage can be difficult.
- The absence of sophisticated time-stamping may prove critical. Use-of-force incidents occur in seconds or less. Most cameras time stamp in gross numbers. Lewinski said, “To fully analyze and explain an officer’s perception…it may be critical to break the action down to units of one-hundredths of a second or even less.”
- One camera may not be enough. Lewinski said, “What looks like an egregious action from one angle may seem perfectly justified from another.”
- A camera encourages second-guessing. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer’s decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations are not to be judged with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. As Lewinski noted, “In the real-world aftermath of a shooting, camera footage provides an almost irresistible temptation for reviewers to play the coulda-shoulda game.”
- A camera can never replace a thorough investigation. The public may have unreasonable expectations and “camera recordings will be given undue, if not exclusive, weight in judging their actions,” Dr. Lewinki said. “Cameras are a tool of an investigation, but they can’t replace a full investigation.”
In sum, Dr. Bill Lewinksi stated, “Rushing to condemn an officer for inappropriate behavior based solely on body-camera evidence can be a dicey proposition. Certainly, a camera can provide more information about what happened on the street. But it can’t necessarily provide all the information needed to make a fair and impartial final judgment. There still may be influential human factors involved apart from what the camera sees.”