Police Body Cameras: Need for Objectivity

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, 16 CD, Chair, NYC Council Committee on Public Safety

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, 16 CD, Chair, NYC Council Committee on Public Safety

There has been much debate and controversy over having the police officers in the NYPD and other police departments across nation outfitted with body cameras. Over the past year there have been several confrontations between the police and unarmed civilians. The most notable ones have been the killing of Eric Garner here in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. These cameras have the potential for much good and for the protection of both civilians for police officers. They can increase accountability, reduce complaints and in many situations civilize the interaction between the police and those they are sworn to protect.

There are some concerns regarding how police body cameras can negatively impact on how a police officer interacts when called to assist a person during an emotional time. In one study it was pointed out that a high percentage of what police officers do is social work. In one instance a police officer was called to speak to a teenager who lived in an abusive home. The officer found it difficult to show compassion and concern knowing that the camera was rolling. I wonder how the teenager felt at a most vulnerable time when she truly needed privacy and compassion and not having a camera looking at her and recording. What about a rape victim? Would the victim feel at ease as the camera rolls? In developing a body camera policy for the NYPD we need to explore this downside. This study was done by Professors Justin T. Ready and Jacob T.N. Young. Both are assistant professors at Arizona State University. The study was done for Future Tense in conjunction with Arizona State University, New America Foundation and Slate. It is the intent of Future Tense to explore the ways in which new technology impacts on society, policy and culture.

The same study showed that when no cameras were used the observations by civilians are not objective but based on experiences, race and other factors. In this part of the study drivers were asked about their experiences at traffic stops in a large western city. Of those interviewed 50.9% of those who were black said that the police officer had his hand on his gun as he approached the car. Only 11.5% of white motorists replied that the officer had his hand on his gun. This city requires that all police officers have their hand on or by their gun when approaching a vehicle. Most likely white drivers were less concerned about where the officer had his hand than were black drivers who are well aware of and fearful of abuse of power involving the police. A 2007 report by the Rand Corporation found that police officers are not more likely to disregard what they have been taught for whites than for blacks. The objectivity of a video is needed. In the Garner case videos by other civilians showed what appears to be a choke hold. That is a violation of NYPD policy.

In a statement issued today Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, Chair of the NYC Council’s Public Safety Committee said:

“Encounters with police that have cost unarmed civilians their lives have raised serious questions about what is actually taking place on our streets and body cameras can provide us with critical information that will ensure that the constitutional rights of all New Yorkers are truly protected and public safety is enhanced in communities throughout our City”, “Body cameras are neutral observers that offer incredible potential as tools that can serve to protect all New Yorkers while also ensuring that police officers are not falsely accused of wrongdoing,” Gibson said. “That’s why I am welcoming Commissioner Bratton’s reported decision to embrace a pilot program that will implement body cameras on a limited basis, and look forward to working with interested parties and advocates to ensure that the program is successful.”

It is time to act on this and to require police cameras. In developing the program we need to address the privacy and social interaction concerns. I am confident that we will. Councilwoman Gibson and her colleagues are on top of all issues involving the protection and the safety of our civilians.

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