Cameras on the Police: Checking a Persistent Abuse of Power

May 19, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown

Police misconduct has been big news lately. With citizen confidence in law enforcement ebbing away, it may be best for both police and the public if every encounter between the two is witnessed by unblinking eyes.

On April 4, North Charleston Police Officer Michael T. Slager claimed he shot Walter Scott to death in self-defense, fearing for his life after Scott grabbed for Slager's Taser during a post-traffic stop scuffle.

What Slager didn't know was that the incident was clearly witnessed by Feidin Santana, whose video clearly shows not only Slager shooting the fleeing, unarmed Scott five to eight times in the back, but also subsequently retrieving what appears to be his Taser from the location of the scuffle and dropping it near the body of his victim.

The Walter Scott incident is nowhere near the first time a police officer has killed someone and then lied about it, but it will be closer to the last if police departments across the country require their officers to wear body cameras. 

The logic of how and why body cameras will reduce police misconduct is straightforward. While genuine (which is not to say justifiable) mistakes and misjudgments can never be eradicated completely, a police officer will knowingly act beyond the bounds of what he is legally empowered to do only if he believes he can get away with it.  Because body cameras greatly reduce the chances of a guilty officer's not being exposed, officers wearing them will be less likely to venture onto the wrong side of the law while in uniform.

Several studies by police departments suggest that camera-wearing cops behave better than their cameraless counterparts. For example, in 2013 Rialto Police Chief William Farrar reported findings from his yearlong study that "suggest more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment."

During roughly the same time period, the Mesa (AZ) Police Department was conducting its own study, which yielded similar results. But that study also assessed officer attitudes about the impact of body cameras. As documented by Michael D. White in "Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence"—a report co-sponsored by the Department of Justice—"77 percent [of officers] believed the cameras would cause officers to behave more professionally."

In "Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program", a report also co-sponsored by the Department of Justice, the Police Executive Research Forum notes a strong consensus in favor of body cameras:

Body-worn cameras can help improve the high-quality public service expected of police officers and promote the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice that communities have about their police departments. Furthermore, departments that are already deploying body-worn cameras tell us that the presence of cameras often improves the performance of officers as well as the conduct of the community members who are recorded. This is an important advance in policing. And when officers or members of the public break the law or behave badly, body-worn cameras can create a public record that allows the entire community to see what really happened.

Support for police being required to wear body cameras is even stronger among the general public. For example, a poll conducted in the wake of the Walter Scott suggests that 88% of Americans favor the practice.

The federal government is getting on board. Noting that "[b]ody-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, the Department of Justice recently announced its plans to spend $75 million over the next three years to provide body cameras and training to police agencies throughout the country.

But outfitting cops with cameras is only part of the picture. For starters, usually it's the officers themselves who must start his camera rolling. Former Albuquerque Police Officer Jeremy Dear made himself the poster child for this problem. After a four-year garnering numerous complaints of excessive force, as well as the killing of a 19-year-old woman—none of which were captured on video despite his being ordered to turn on his body camera during all contact with the general public—Dear was terminated for "insubordination and untruthfulness."

Such potential shortcomings of body cameras underline the importance of the general public's continuing to train our own lenses on law enforcement whenever we see fit. Despite the degree to which this practice may make officers uncomfortable you have every right to do so—even when they tell you to stop—so long as you record them openly and are not otherwise interfering with police activity.

And like everything these days, there's an app for that: Mobile Justice. Provided free to residents by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters in numerous states (California and Colorado are the most recently added), Mobile Justice automatically preserves videos takes by users by forwarding them immediately to the ACLU.

"As we’ve seen in headlines over the previous few months, recordings by members of the public is a crucial check on police abuse,” ACLU staff attorney Peter Bibring told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve seen a number of examples of high-profile incidents of abuse and unlawful shootings or killings that never would have come to light if someone wouldn’t have pulled out their phone.”

Even when the police-public interaction you are witnessing seems routine and uneventful, if you feel like recording it, do so. The worst-case scenario is that you will waste your time. Personally I have recorded situations that at first glance made me suspicious of police conduct, but in every case the police did nothing wrong. Moreover, in a couple of instances what I caught on camera was unjustified belligerence met by police professionalism.

Then again, there was that time when I saw an officer in an alley slam a handcuffed teenager facedown against the pavement. Because it happened before I could train my camera on the scene, all I could do was alert the police to what I witnessed.

Disappointingly, I was given the runaround by various departments declaiming responsibility for or even knowledge of the arrest in question before finally finding someone to take my statement.

Because I never heard back from anyone, and my follow-ups were to no avail. Lacking sufficient knowledge of what transpired and any sort of hard evidence, there was nothing more I could do. But had I filmed the encounter, I imagine this particular story of police abuse would not have stopped where it did.

Perhaps most police officers never abuse their power. Doubtful as it may seem to some, maybe most cops also won't cover up for their abusive cohort. But there is ample evidence showing that excessive use of force is alive and well, with many officers in the know willing to at least look the other way.

In such a world as this, police departments, governmental organizations, and the general public all should do whatever we can to hold individual officers accountable at all times. So long as they faithfully do their duty, we're doing them a favor. And when they don't, the favor is for ourselves.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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