Lentis/Body Cameras

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The Use of Deadly Force by Police[edit]

As of December 8, 892 people had been shot and killed by police in 2016.[1] 491 of these deaths occurred within the first six months of 2016, up from 465 deaths in the first six months of 2015.[2] In the majority of fatal shootings by police this year, officers were confronted by subjects armed with guns. In half of those cases, those persons fired at police, thereby prompting officers to fire their own guns in defense of themselves or in order to protect bystanders.[2] In 45 of these deaths, it has been confirmed that the suspect was unarmed. In 36 cases, the suspect was "armed" with a toy or replica weapon. In 62 other cases, it remains unknown if the suspect was armed.

Case Studies[edit]

Philando Castile[3] [4][edit]

On July 6, 2016, Philano Castile, a 32-year-old cafeteria worker, was shot dead by Officer Geronimo Yanez in a traffic stop. Mr. Castile was driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her young daughter, when they were pulled over by Officer Yanez. Officer Yanez believed Castile matched the description of a suspect in a nearby armed robbery from a few days earlier. Castile remained fastened in his seatbelt and handed Officer Yanez his insurance card. Before reaching for his wallet that contained his driver's license, Castile reportedly said, "Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me."[4] Officer Yanez then began shouting, "Don't pull it out!" Mr. Castile and his girlfriend assured the officer that Castile was not grabbing his gun but Officer Yanez drew his own firearm and fired seven rounds, fatally wounding Mr. Castile. After being shot, Mr. Castile moaned and said, "I wasn't reaching for it." Diamond Reynolds captured the aftermath on a live video she posted to Facebook. The video shows Castile slumped over the driver's seat, soaked in blood and groaning. Diamond says "you shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir." Officer Yanez would later tell investigators that he feared for his life and that he believed Mr. Castile was reaching for his gun. Paramedics found Castile's weapon, a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, in the pocket of his shorts as they were positioning him on the backboard. There were no rounds in the chamber. Officer Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and accused of "escalating a mundane roadside exchange into a needlessly violent episode."[4]

David Joseph[5][edit]

17-year-old David Joseph was shot and killed on February 8, 2016, in an Austin suburb by Officer Geoffrey Freeman. Portions of the encounter were caught on the dashboard camera of Officer Freeman's vehicle. Officer Freeman responded to a 911 call regarding a teenager running naked through an apartment complex. When the officer arrived, he found a nude David Joseph lying in the middle of a residential street. Joseph ran upon seeing the officer and Officer Freeman is heard yelling, "stop right there, don't move, stop, stop." Joseph continued to run up the street and out of sight of the dashboard camera. Moments after he left the frame, the microphone captured the sound of two gunshots being fired. Joseph was shot in the chest and thigh and died at the scene. An autopsy showed he had marijuana and Xanax in his system, but no weapon of any kind was found on the body. No charges were filed against Officer Geoffrey Freeman.

Demands for Reform[2][edit]

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, public demands for reform focused on reducing specific kinds of fatal police shootings, such as those of unarmed individuals or individuals experiencing mental-health crises. In response, the White House called for teaching officers skills to help de-escalate violent encounters, the FBI made promises to improve its collection of data on the fatal use of force by police, and hundreds of police chiefs across the country pushed new policies for dealing with the mentally ill. One popular proposed reform has been to outfit officers with body-worn cameras in the hops that they would increase police accountability and reduce the number of cases in which excessive force is used. In the first six months of 2016, 105 fatal shootings my police have been captured, in whole or in part, by police-worn body cameras, surveillance cameras, or cameras mounted on patrol cars. Graphic video of fatal shootings has led to the dismissal of several high profile police leaders, such as Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.

Body Cameras as a Solution and Perspectives of Participants[edit]

Amidst growing distrust between many communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them, President Barack Obama had the Justice Department initiate the body-worn camera pilot program in May of 2015. The program allotted $23 million dollars to U.S. law enforcement agencies in 32 states for the purchase of body cameras, technical assistance, and training. The experience of these agencies is intended to help the Justice Department explore the impacts and effectiveness of body camera usage.[6] Throughout the implementation of body cameras, three major participant groups have been involved. They include public activist groups, police agencies and groups, and body camera manufacturers.

Positions of Activist Groups[edit]

In light of lethal force incidents by police, many movements have formed to advocate for reform of law enforcement. Campaign Zero, which partners with Mapping Police Violence[7], has proposed ten different policy solutions with a focus on ensuring police accountability. One of these proposals is the use of body cameras and bystander filming. The group calls for body and dashboard cameras to be required nationwide with policies that would make footage available upon request via the Freedom of Information Act.[8] Campaign Zero also addresses privacy concerns of citizens being recorded by advocating for subjects to have the option to not be recorded. The second aspect of their solution, bystander recording, is favored over body cameras by many chapters of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This group, which was formed in 2012 after the shooting of Trayvon Martin[9], claims that body cameras would lead to increased surveillance of citizens and possible invasions of privacy. [10] However, some chapters of BLM do support the use of body cameras, including one in New Jersey that rallied for their mandatory usage by law enforcement within the state.[11]

Positions of Police Agencies and Groups[edit]

The implementation of body cameras has had mixed reception by police groups in the United States. Many agencies support them as a means to improve relations with the community and to protect officers from accusations of misconduct. One agency that supports body cameras is the Washington D.C. Police Union. This group has opposed legislation that would make camera footage unavailable to the public and believes “increased transparency in policing benefits everyone.”[12] Blue Lives Matter, a website ran by law enforcement officers and their supporters, frequently uses body camera footage in its articles and on its YouTube channel to vindicate the police in use of force incidents.[13] Agencies and groups opposed to body cameras often cite officer privacy and stress from constant scrutiny as key concerns. [14] In 2016, the Boston Police Department had no officers volunteer for a body camera pilot program and when the program was made mandatory, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association filed a lawsuit citing a breach of the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the city. In addition to privacy concerns, the lawsuit also stated body cameras impact officer safety, citing a study that found officers wearing cameras are 15 percent more likely to be assaulted.[15]

Influence of Body Camera Manufacturers[edit]

Body camera manufacturers chiefly market their products to law enforcement agencies which has placed the focus of their advertising on their products’ capability to protect officers. This is visible in the mission statements of many manufacturers. One such manufacturer, BodyCam, describes how its products “affordably increase safety and reduce liability for [police] officers.”[16] The website for Wolfcom includes many images and statements that align them with law enforcement. Their title page includes the statement “serving those who serve others” and their mission statement highlights how they produce “[a] body camera that will be the truth behind false accusation when an [officer] needs it most.”[17] WatchGuard does highlight how its systems “help improve relations between communities and police…” in its mission statement, but also comments on how its “… products help protect the careers of the great police officers that protect us.”[18] The pro-law enforcement language from these companies highlights the benefits of the cameras for police but rarely, if ever, brings up what benefits they have for subjects in police-public interactions. Given that the marketing of these products is often geared towards police interests, it is worth considering whether or not they are manufactured with any design biases. One such potential bias exists in the ability of the cameras to instantly playback their footage for officers. The activist group Campaign Zero has called for policies that prohibit officers from being able to use this function prior to writing their initial reports and statements about the incident.[8] Another potential design bias is a 30 second audio delay that is common in saved footage, a feature that exists for officer privacy.[19]

Examining the Impact and Effectiveness of Body Cameras[edit]

Police Tampering[edit]

Although body cameras have been presented as potential solution to police violence, some insist there are inherent problems associated with them. One concern is the degree of control police have over the operation of these devices. Officer tampering could leave important details unrecorded. Soon after Michael Brown was shot, Armand Bennet, an unarmed African American male, was shot by a New Orleans police officer. Although the officer was wearing a body camera, records show she switched off her camera before the incident[20].

Camera Perspective Bias[edit]

Even if an incident is recorded fully, biases arise from the camera viewpoint. Seth W. Stoughton, a University of South Carolina Law professor and former police officer, refers to this phenomenon as “camera perspective bias”. As he tells the New York Times, “When video allows us to look through someone’s eyes, we tend to adopt an interpretation that favors that person”.[21] In a demonstration of this idea, he provides footage of simulated police-citizen interactions. Each different scenario presented is similar to realistic incidents. One perspective is from the body camera, and the other is from various types of outside observations, including dashboard cameras and cell phone videos from bystanders. Stoughton concludes that from people who viewed the two different perspectives, those with a higher initial trust of the police tended to think the officer was facing a threatening situation, while those with a lower initial trust leaned towards the citizen.

Scientific Evaluation[edit]

Although manufacturers point to the many benefits of a body worn surveillance system, these same companies have done little research to verify these claims. Some data suggests they have little effect at all. The largest to date study in the European Journal of Criminology examined police officer activity in several California and UK cities. The goal was to repeat previous studies that confirmed use of police force decreased. It found body cameras had no effect on police use of force, and actually led to an increased rate of assaults against officers wearing cameras. [22]

Future Improvements[edit]

Future improvements seek to create a body camera that is bias free and reliable. Axon is a major body camera company and says that in 2017 they will produce cameras with live-streaming technology, eliminating the need for expensive police department digital storage. They also predict to produce cameras with facial recognition technology soon.[23] Tazer International of Arizona is producing a camera that automatically activates when the vehicle emergency lights are turned on or a smart weapon is drawn from an officer’s holster.[24] Many groups consider police body cameras a step in the right direction, but admit many improvements are left to be made. These new technologies or some combination thereof could provide a solution to many of the existing problems with body cameras today.

  1. Washington Post. (2016). Fatal Force.
  2. a b c Kindy, K. (2016). Fatal shootings by police are up in the first six months of 2016, Post analysis finds. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/fatal-shootings-by-police-surpass-2015s-rate/2016/07/07/81b708f2-3d42-11e6-84e8-1580c7db5275_story.html
  3. Kelly, J. (2016). How Diamond Reynolds Transformed Politeness Into Protest.
  4. a b c Capecchi, C. (2016). Officer Who Shot Phlando Castile Is Charged With Manslaughter. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/us/philando-castile-shooting-minnesota.html
  5. Hensley, N. (2016). Naked Texas teen shot and killed by Austin cop was unarmed; family grieving the slain high school student: ‘Our child was stolen from us by the police’.
  6. Justice Department. (2015). Justice Department Awards over $23 Million in Funding for Body Worn Camera Pilot Program to Support Law Enforcement Agencies in 32 States. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-awards-over-23-million-funding-body-worn-camera-pilot-program-support-law
  7. Mapping Police Violence. (2016). View Solutions. http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
  8. a b Campaign Zero. (2016). Body Cameras/Film the Police. http://www.joincampaignzero.org/film-the-police/
  9. Black Lives Matter. (2016). About. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
  10. Black Lives Matter. (2015). 11 Major Misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter Movement. http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
  11. Black Lives Matter. (2015). NJ State House Rally for Justice. http://blacklivesmatter.com/event/nj-state-house-rally-for-justice/
  12. DC Police Union. (2016). Police Body Camera Petition. http://dcpoliceunion.com/take_action/police-body-camera
  13. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcXyMU4Bjc32COBSStzbuWQ
  14. Harry Bruinius. (2016). Why Police are Pushing Back on Body Cameras. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2016/0830/Why-police-are-pushing-back-on-body-cameras
  15. Michael Levenson, Evan Allen. (2016). Boston Police Union Challenges Body Camera Program. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2016/08/26/cameras/9TTDBCwV0reVpw3l5UCh1H/story.html
  16. BodyCam. (2016). Company.
  17. Wolfcom. (2016). Wolfcom Body Cameras. http://wolfcomusa.com/
  18. WatchGuard. (2016). Company Profile. https://watchguardvideo.com/company-profile
  19. Rikki Mitchell. (2016). Audio delay in officer body cam footage part of technology. http://www.tmj4.com/news/local-news/audio-delay-in-officer-body-cam-footage-part-of-technology
  20. Considering Police Body Cameras. (2015, April 10). Harvard Law Review, 128(6). Retrieved from http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/considering-police-body-cameras/
  21. Williams, T., Thomas, J., Jacoby, S., & Cave, D. (2016). Police Body Cameras: What Do You See? Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/01/us/police-bodycam-video.html
  22. Ariel, B., Sutherland, A., Henstock, D., Young, J., Drover, P., Sykes, J., . . . Henderson, R. (2016). Wearing body cameras increases assaults against officers and does not reduce police use of force: Results from a global multi-site experiment. European Journal of Criminology, 13(6), 744-755. doi:10.1177/1477370816643734
  23. http://www.popsci.com/future-police-body-cams-will-be-livestream-facial-recognition-capable
  24. Do Police Body Cameras Really Work?