Watched Cops Are Polite Cops: Requiring Law Enforcement to Wear Video Cameras Will Protect Your Constitutional Rights and Improve Policing

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Watched Cops Are Polite Cops: Requiring Law Enforcement to Wear Video Cameras Will Protect Your Constitutional Rights and Improve Policing


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


THIS SUMMER, after a civil suit challenged the New York City Police Department's notorious program of patting down "suspicious" residents, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Federal District Court in Manhattan imposed an experiment in which cops in precincts with the highest reported rates of stop-and-frisk activity would be required to wear video cameras for a year.

This is a really good idea.

Small cameras such as the AXON Flex from Taser International can attach to an officer's sunglasses, hat, or uniform. Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60 percent. Watched cops are polite cops.

In addition, research suggests that judge Scheindlin has made the right call; requiring officers to wear video cameras will help protect citizens' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

For example, a 2004 study in Criminology and Public Policy by criminologists Stephen Mastrofski from George Mason University and Jonathan Gould from American University evaluated direct observations of police searches in a medium-sized American city. They conservatively estimated that nearly one-third of police searches were performed unconstitutionally and almost none of those unconstitutional searches came to the attention of the courts.

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), calls police-worn video cameras "a win/win for both the public and the police." Win/win because video recordings help shield officers from false accusations of abuse as well as protecting the public against police misconduct.

In order to make sure that both the public and police realize the greatest benefits from body-cams, however, a number of policies need to be implemented.

For example, police officers should be subject to stiff disciplinary sanctions if they fail to turn their cameras on each time they interact with the public. In addition, items obtained during an unrecorded encounter should be deemed a violation of the subject's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and excluded as evidence, unless there were extenuating circumstances, such as a broken camera. Similarly, failure to record an incident for which a patrolman is accused of misconduct should create a presumption against that officer.

Officer-worn video cameras do have the potential to violate the privacy of citizens. After all, the police frequently deal with people who are having one of the worst days of their lives. Police often enter people's houses to investigate disturbances and disputes. In such cases, video of someone's metaphorical (or literal) dirty laundry is nobody else's business.

Consequently, Stanley argues that strong rules regarding the retention, use, and disclosure of videos from police-worn cameras must be established and enforced. For example, videos should be retained for no more than 30 to 60 days, unless flagged. Of course, if the video contains evidence of a crime it should be retained just as any other evidence would be. Flagging would also occur for any incident involving force or that produces a citizen complaint. …

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