In a 2013 sample survey of police departments, 75% reported they did not use body-worn cameras.
—National Institute of Justice
Here are a few pros and cons of body cameras worn on police officers
- Increased accountability for law enforcement officers
- Helpful in determining the facts of a case
- Use of them can help ease public trust of officers
- Use of cameras are not 100 percent foolproof
- Cameras and equipment can be costly
- High demand and low supply of equipment available
- Video requires a huge amount of storage space on a department’s server
- Cameras are bulky and can fall off uniforms
- Just as with any evidence, video can be tampered with.
— Information gathered from local law enforcement and national reports
By Teresa Taylor Williams
Cameras don’t lie.
Which is why more law enforcement departments are using them to decipher “what really happened” when it comes to interaction between citizens and officers of the law.
Across the country, increased incidents of violence against unarmed African American men have created a heightened distrust of police officers. Civil rights activists and protestors have called for more accountability, particularly in the use of surveillance technology.
Distrust of law enforcement is precisely what Muskegon Police Chief Jeffrey Lewis does not want.
He is proud to say that the Muskegon Police department has used dashboard cameras for many years. Muskegon Police officers have used body cameras the past two years. He said they are worn by officers on bicycle and foot patrol. However, due to limited supply, they are not currently in use during traffic stops or other calls where they must leave their squad car, such as domestic calls.
According to Lewis, the use of cameras is beneficial overall. However, he said that even if they are used, there can be many barriers to how effective they are.
“We’ve had dash cameras in our cars since 2011, and they work awesome. The audio visual recording equipment is wireless, very elaborate and captures a lot of stuff we do, which is the whole idea,” said Lewis. “We have dash cameras and secondary cameras that cover the backseat, and they also provide audio of what goes on inside the cars. We synchronize everything so we can hear outside and inside separately.”
He said body cameras are difficult to buy because the demand is high and the supply is low.
Lewis added that people should be careful when assuming that if officers wear body cameras, that all incidents will be recorded. However, the cameras can get in the way, they can fall off an officer’s uniform while running or in a physical struggle, and therefore may not fully capture the situation “and if that happens, then people may lose trust in us immediately. We don’t want them to lose trust in us because we are here to serve the citizens.”
According to Lewis, if officers are trained properly, oftentimes there is no need for a camera because they have acted appropriately.
“I think people are overselling what they really can do. Today’s cameras still have a lot of problems, and companies are working on making them more technologically-friendly,” Lewis said.
The use of cameras is a costly investment for many police departments. The City of Muskegon has invested $200,000 in cameras and audio/visual equipment.
“They are very expensive and we have to worry about taxpayers’ money,” said Lewis.
In 2014, President Obama announced $263 million in funding to purchase 50,000 body cameras for police agencies. Many police departments jumped right in and made the investment, but funds are not always available.
The Muskegon Heights Police Department does not have them yet, but officers may be wearing them by late fall. The department applied for federal grant funding for tazers and body cameras from the Department of Justice and expects to be approved within the next couple months, according to Muskegon Heights Police Chief Joseph Thomas.
According to Thomas, when an officer wears a body camera, anyone viewing the video can automatically see what the officer saw.
“I think they’re good for two things: they increase the quality of service for the officer, and decreases citizen complaints,” said Thomas.
Thomas, who came on board with the city last January, said he was a little surprised the department did not use body cameras. They were in use at his previous department in Southfield.
“I am a proponent of body cameras. Citizens have a tendency to sometimes stretch the truth and exaggerate. If an officer is wearing a body camera, we can clarify what happened, and therefore, we get a better working relationship with the public,” said Thomas. “I think our officers and the union are receptive to it. It’s a win-win situation.”
Similar to Muskegon Police, officers within the City of Muskegon Heights have used dashboard cameras in squad cars for several years. However, due to the technology, the audio works best only when the officer is within range of the squad car.
“Car cams are good for traffic stops, domestic situations on the street, chases, or when an officer approaches a person on the street. But you can get too far from the car cam’s line of vision when you’re running down alleys and into the woods,” said Thomas, adding that this is a problem because the cameras don’t capture what the suspect is saying or doing out of the visual line of the camera in the car.
Anthony Rivas of Grand Rapids compared police wearing body cameras to cashiers in stores being videotaped with interaction with customers.
“The owners trust them, but they have proof in case they slip up,” Rivas said. “But cameras mean nothing if the judges let these cops walk free, even with a whole video providing they are guilty. Actions with no consequences leads to repetitive actions.”
For Muskegon resident James Williams, pastor of Abundant Life Church, body cameras should be worn in confined areas as well as for outside incidents. He knows the value of officers using these cameras because he formerly sat on the Muskegon Police Department’s Citizens Review Board. He believes sheriff’s deputies should be required to use body cameras inside the Muskegon County Jail.
“I think they are needed as much indoors in closed environments as they are on the streets, so we’ll know how deputies are conducting themselves, and also how people are being treated on the inside (of jail),” he said.
Law enforcement across the country has found many concerns that go along with the use of body cameras. Along with being expensive, there are technological issues such as making sure they are compatible with computer systems within the department, and the fact that they can become outdated quickly. The cameras themselves can also get in the way of the uniform, and can fall off the officer.
Officers also have the ability to control what the camera sees.
One of many questionable incidents occurred on July 28 on Chicago’s South Side, an officer turned off his body camera during an incident where 18-year-old Paul O’Neal was running from police. He was shot in the back and killed. The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
But even with these issues, cameras help provide credibility and transparency within a police department, according to retired City of Muskegon officer Eric Hood. Prior to his retirement, he and other officers were equipped with microphones for interaction with the public.
“The officer in question may not be telling the truth, and the citizen may not, either. This just gives another eye to help sort it out,” said Hood, who also sits on the Muskegon City Commission. “I don’t see why it’s a bad thing to have, and you better believe someone will have a phone camera on.”
For Damica Bell of Muskegon Heights, she supports the use of body cameras.
“I think they are a good start, they are needed and required. It seems that with the recent killings, even the ones that were caught on video, more needs to be done,” said the mother of two. “But things need to be addressed on a larger scale, starting with home and teaching our boys to respect authority. Then, there should be more training for the police officers regarding the levels of restraint, depending on the crime. I would like to know more about the laws and what to tell my son.”
Troopers with Michigan State Police do not use body cameras, according to Field Lt. Chris McIntyre, because they are still weighing out the options. Storage space for this kind of technology is a factor, he said.
“At this point in time we are looking at them, and I’m sure that in the future we will use them if the opportunity arises,” McIntyre said.
Police cameras are needed more than ever because racism is still alive and well, and body cameras help expose this, according to Muskegon native Leon Howard III.
“There are residual effects of a dark and oppressive history and racist systems that still exist today that paint a picture that black men are dangerous, violent individuals to be feared and not trusted,” said Howard. “This fear, connected with unchecked biases and racist beliefs, can and has led to decisions that have unjustly taken the lives of too many Black men. This is why whenever I see a police officer, particularly white officers, there is instantaneous fear instead of comfort. This is why body cameras should be worn by officers. There needs to be accountability measures in place to ensure power is not corrupted and that officers main goals are to protect and preserve life.”
The public should be cautioned that cameras used by law enforcement, particularly body cameras, are not a magic solution to all issues between citizens and police, said Muskegon’s Chief Lewis.
“Technology is not the magic pill that will solve everything. It is only one tool that helps us because we have quite a few things in place. We are obviously ever-evolving and being very careful to watch what’s going on in the community,” said Lewis.