Body Cams: Accountability, not Surveillance
Body cams are cameras worn by police officers, designed to record footage of all encounters with the public while the officer is in uniform. The hope behind body cameras is to increase police accountability and reduce excessive force incidents. While over a third of the nation’s more than 18,000 departments are using or testing body cams, challenges are getting in the way of the cameras truly fulfilling their objectives.
For example, two departments have recently shelved their cams, after deciding the fiscal burden on the municipality was just too great. Video storage alone costs these departments from $5000 to $10,000 annually, and it is seen as money that could be spent better elsewhere. In Detroit, for example, equipping more than 900 officers with body cams and storing and processing the resulting videos would be more than one million dollars. Quite simply, according to Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, he just doesn't have the money.
Another challenge to the proper use of body cams are the policies and procedures surrounding its use. In a recent report, many districts studied have either not made policies or have failed to follow them, in a trend that Harlan Yu, a technologist for the consulting firm that developed the report, calls “concerning”. Many departments do not allow their footage to be released to the public, and even some that are supposed to retain footage do not. “Accountability is only possible if those who need to see the footage actually have access to it,” he said.
And Arizona’s body cam usage ranks near the bottom.
Why Arizona ranks low for Body Cam usage
A report by The Leadership Council for Human Rights shows that all of the Arizona departments studied (in this case, 3 of the 50 departments the list looks at were in Arizona: Phoenix, Mesa, and Tucson) rank low for their policies about body cams. The report looked at 8 categories of accountability, and then scored each department on each category as red (did not meet standard), yellow (partially met standard), or green (met standard).
The standards reported on were:
- Access and Biometrics
- Availability of policy
- Footage Retention
- Officer discretion
- Officer review of footage
- Personal privacy policies
Phoenix ranks the lowest of the Arizona three, partially meeting standings in officer discretion and personal privacy policies, and failing to meet standards in all the rest. Mesa scored only slightly better, earning a yellow in the two Phoenix did, plus misuse and red in the rest. Only Tucson was able to meet any of the standards, earning green in both retention of footage and policy availability.
Yu hopes that the results in Arizona will help departments improve their policies and eventually increase accountability for officers. “Hopefully this scorecard helps community advocates in Phoenix identify areas where the department policies could improve,” he says.