Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Police-Worn Body Cameras: An Antidote to the "Ferguson Effect"?

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Police-Worn Body Cameras: An Antidote to the "Ferguson Effect"?

Article excerpt


You are a police officer working the night shift in a major U.S. city. In the dark hours of the early morning, you come across a group of young males in a part of the city known for criminal activity. When they see your patrol car, the young men stop what they are doing and look away quickly. All of your training, as well as the instincts that you have developed over years patrolling these same streets, tells you to stop and at least attempt to start a conversation with the group to determine whether criminal activity is afoot and perhaps prevent it. There is, however, a nagging thought in the back of your head. Isn't it possible--or perhaps likely--that someone in the group or nearby will have a video device and record the encounter? What if the crowd attempts to provoke a confrontation and then records it? What if the recording is posted to the Internet or sent to the media? Should such thoughts temper your judgment in this situation? Would they make you hesitate to get out of the car? Would it make a difference to you if you knew that you were wearing a body camera--one that you controlled, that would record your view of the situation, with images that could not be disposed of or edited after the fact by someone intending to deprive viewers of necessary context?

This Article explores the questions raised by this scenario, focusing on police-worn body cameras, the role these cameras may play in officer-citizen encounters, and the resolution of legal disputes that arise from such encounters. Part II discusses what role, if any, citizen-recorded videos and the effect they have on society play in the prevalence of crime--what has sometimes been called the "Ferguson effect." Part III explores the role police-worn body cameras could play in counteracting any such effect, addressing arguments in favor of body cameras and exploring their potential to encourage positive police and citizen behavior. Part IV then considers potential concerns about the use of body cameras, exploring arguments against their use and their potential to hinder police behavior. Finally, Part V offers conclusions and recommendations on the issue of police-worn body cameras.


Police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (1) Although an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") later cleared Officer Wilson of federal wrongdoing in the shooting, (2) a parallel investigation by the civil Rights Division of the DOJ concluded that the City of Ferguson's law enforcement practices revealed a "pattern or practice of unlawful conduct." (3) Regardless, widespread rioting and looting occurred in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Brown shooting and again after a state grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson. (4)

In November 2014, three months after the shooting, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was interviewed regarding preparations for the upcoming announcement of the grand jury's decision. During the interview, Chief Dotson was apparently the first to use the phrase "Ferguson effect," (5) noting that "[i]t's the Ferguson effect.... I see it not only on the law enforcement side, but the criminal element is feeling empowered by the environment." (6) Chief Dotson did not clarify what he meant by "the environment." The comment, however, occurred during a discussion of a rise in assaults and robberies since the shooting, coupled with a drop in arrests, due at least in part to the fact that officers had been pulled away from their normal duties for specialized training in civil unrest. (7)

The phrase "Ferguson effect" has subsequently evolved to have two distinct meanings. (8) One meaning--apparently the dominant one--is the "de-policing" interpretation. (9) Under this view, the "Ferguson effect" occurs when "highly publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens, including but not limited to the Ferguson incident, cause[] police officers to disengage from their duties, particularly proactive tactics that prevent crime. …

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