Those pressing for better relations between police and citizenry across the United States can view the local situation with great optimism. Not only are Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt and city leaders moving ahead on the employment of body cameras for Waco police officers, they give every indication of doing so in a thoughtful and deliberative way.
For instance, police have watched and waited as body cams were put to use by other police departments across the country. They’ve done so not only to allow time and experience to bring forth critical refinements in the technology but also to see how other police departments address the inevitable policy questions about when cameras should be turned on — and how long camera footage should be stored.
The estimated $500,000 cost for all this locally — including four full-time new civilian police and information technology positions — won’t make matters easier for police and possibly the city attorney’s office. Yet we believe this technology has enormous potential to build on the strong community outreach undertaken by Chief Holt and his predecessors. And given rising racial tensions nationwide and every expectation of this continuing, local efforts such as this can deter or reverse this trend, however incrementally.
While body cameras continue to prompt significant debate, studies confirm our optimism. For instance, a September 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology that focused on the Mesa Police Department in Arizona in 2012-13 noted that officers who didn’t wear body cameras conducted more “stop-and-frisks” and made more arrests than officers who wore cameras. Those without cameras undertook nearly 10 percent more stop-and-frisks (which federal courts recognize as constitutional land mines) and nearly 7 percent more arrests.
On the other hand, officers assigned to wear cameras issued 23.1 percent more citations for ordinance violations than those not wearing body cameras. And, interestingly, officers with body cameras initiated 13.5 percent more interactions with citizens than those who didn’t wear them. The study concluded officers are likely as concerned about scrutiny by supervisors as members of the public. Which is as it should be.
While the New York Police Department faces different challenges than the Waco Police Department, its new body-camera policy, according to the Washington Post, “illustrates just how important it is to get the details right, starting with the on/off button.” Advocates are stressing the importance of officers keeping the camera off when dealing with, say, confidential informants, undercover officers and child victims. On the other hand, Minneapolis police have learned the hard way this summer that body cams should be turned on whenever officers respond to 911 calls.
Our chief makes a good point about how body cams will help justice proceed more efficiently in the courts. That said, police departments here and elsewhere must remember that body cams will only be greeted with confidence by the public if the evidence recorded is readily accessible to citizenry as well as the police in the inevitable he said/he said clashes that arise in the course of the day.