Could Body Cams Reduce Police Tensions?


If Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson had been wearing a camera when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed last week, the details of the case would almost assuredly be indisputable.

But the effort to lesson unnecessary police force may not be as simple as slapping a body cam on every officer in the country.

With the recent controversy still simmering in Ferguson, Missouri, Trace examines the use of lethal force by police officers.

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"There have been a lot of claims in favor and against [body cameras], and there are only five studies in the entire body of literature on the subject," said Michael White, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, who recently concluded in a report for the U.S. Department of Justice that there is not enough evidence to make a recommendation for or against them.

"There's enough evidence that if a department is interested they should proceed, but with caution," he said.

Currently more than 1,000 U.S. police departments are equipping officers with body cameras. The cameras are a step beyond police patrol car dashboard cameras, whose footage have helped piece together incidents for decades.

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In the Ferguson case, White thinks police body cams could have helped ease tensions.

"In cases like we're seeing in Ferguson, we're hearing two very, very different versions of events. If he had worn a camera they could have gone to the video, and the potential would have been for it not to escalate: if the bystanders view was accurate and it was murder, then they could have proceeded with the firing and arresting and prosecuting of the officer. Or if the flip side were true, then work could have been done with the community stakeholders to explain what happened step by step."

The details can be both complex and cumbersome, however: Officers and unions -- who may be reluctant to adapt the technology -- must be on board with a mandate. And even something as seemingly simple as storing the data becomes prohibitive when deployed on such a massive scale. Then there are bigger issues, such as privacy.

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