For the past two years, the Black Lives Matter movement has effectively raised public awareness regarding the widespread mistreatment of black Americans by police officers. In response a number of tragic incidents and statistics brought to light by the protesters and public media, many Americans have come to agreement that the use of body cameras by police officers could be a great way to make good policing more effective while making it easier to identify and punish officers using undue force against suspects.
Unfortunately, efforts to implement body cameras to police forces have come up against some major obstacles. The cost of video storage as well as legal issues surrounding body cameras remain largely unaddressed problems for police departments struggling to remain in line with public opinion.
Worcester Police Chief Steven M. Sargent has spoken publicly about the results of his department’s experiments using multiple prototype cameras over the past six months. The cameras are used largely during SWAT situations, which are executed after having obtained specific search warrants.
“Obviously it is very expensive just for storage alone, but really for our side the big thing is the legality of their use,” stated Sargent. “There are several legal issues we need to address well before we talk about buying.”
Sargent has requested that the city’s Law Department review several topics where issues have come up, including the parameters of citizens’ privacy rights and the times when cameras can be turned on or off.
The police chief said that cameras can help officers in terms of protecting them from allegations of abuse, but that many people with whom the police deal might not want to be videotaped or speak to an officer while an officer’s camera is on. Police Departments across the company have yet to decide exactly how to balance the use of cameras with their need to maintain relationships with people in the community.
The pros and cons of the implementation of body cameras were presented in further detail during a 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum:
“When implemented correctly, body-worn cameras can help strengthen the policing profession. These cameras can help promote agency, accountability, and transparency, and they can be useful tools for increasing officer professionalism, improving officer training, preserving evidence, and documenting encounters with the public,” states the report. “However, they also raise issues as a practical matter and at the policy level, both of which agencies must thoughtfully examine. Police agencies must determine what adopting body-worn cameras will mean in terms of police-community relationships, privacy, trust and legitimacy, and internal procedural justice for officers.”
Sargent went on to identify some major questions yet to be sorted out by police departments or federal or state governments: “Can you turn it off in someone’s home? When can you turn it on or off? There will be questions about why we turn it off,” she stated.
Data storage is perhaps an even larger hurdle for police departments hoping to implement the cameras. The Worcester Police Department employs over 400 officers, meaning it would have to spend millions of dollars on data storage if all the police officers wore cameras and were recording footage daily.
According to the Police Executive Research Forum report, one department would need to spend over $2 million for 900 cameras and data storage, the majority of which would be necessary for storing and maintaining digital data.
“There are phenomenal costs associated with the storage of that volume of video,” stated City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. at a City Council meeting last January. Augustus told listeners that the city was considering adding more video cameras inside the Lincoln Square police headquarters. “We would have to keep it for about three years, because that is the window of time in which somebody could put in a claim against the city.”
He continued on to say that the city is “grappling with the costs associated with providing the storage necessary to do that.”