Relax, I’m a Cop and I’m Wearing a Camera

Almost as soon as the Ferguson incident became public, there was a public outcry to “see the video footage.” When it was announced that the Ferguson Police Departments did not have video cameras installed in their patrol cars, the cry changed to “All police cars should have cameras!”

So, what changed?

Well, the answer is simple. Everyone became an instant expert. A few years ago it was referred to as “CSI syndrome,” because it seems that everyone who watched a cop show decided they were an expert. Now it’s even easier – we have the internet. Now, everyone with a social media account can troll the sites and post an opinion without any real experience. Other people see the “expert’s opinion” and repeat it. Pretty soon everyone believes it.

Police cameras are the latest area of concern for these “experts.”

Body CameraBut will cameras really stop future events such as what took place in Ferguson?

  1. Cameras are not the perfect witness – just like a live witness, cameras are not perfect. They only capture what happens within their field of view and only after the unit has been activated.
  2. Technology is not fail proof – cameras, and the technology needed to use them, are susceptible to glitches or failures. When it happens, will the public understand and remember it is as simple as the last time their smartphone hiccupped, or will they blame it on a coverup or conspiracy?
  3. Cameras cost money – neither the cameras nor the equipment needed to run them are free. Units can cost hundreds of dollars each and often require additional software or network memory to utilize and store the data. Will taxpayers be willing to foot the bill after the dust settles?
  4. Attitudes change – prior to Ferguson, many Americans viewed drones, CCTV or body cameras as another invasion of their privacy. Although large numbers of citizens, and lawmakers, are now demanding cameras on every officer, how long before this attitude flips and the cameras again become targets?
  5. Some will simply not care – we have already seen examples of anti-law enforcement members refusing to let their opinion be swayed by video. If the video does not show what they want it to, they ignore it, edit it or blame police for editing it. Having more cameras on the street will not change this behavior; it will simply call into question more videos.

I have tried body mounted cameras and have sometimes wished I had one when I did not. Although I agree that there are times it would have been useful, I do not think they are the “silver bullet” that will solve all of the problems between law enforcement and the public. Don’t believe me? Wait until the next time a politician, their kid or another “prominent citizen” is recorded doing wrong and see how fast the tables are turned. Even if that politician voted for “Cameras on every cop.”

Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

1 thought on “Relax, I’m a Cop and I’m Wearing a Camera

  1. This article makes some good points. If you try to watch combat footage from helmet cams or body cams, often times the camera is not pointed at what the user is actually looking at or the user turns away at a critical moment to defend themself/take cover. Other times, footage has glitches or becomes obscured by smoke, gear, other people.

    Where I work now, we have a massive surveillance system. Too often, people try to rely soley on that system, despite the fact that coverage becomes blocked by other people, lighting shifts and blows out the lens right when you need to see what happened, or other factors that degrade coverage. It can help, but is limited much more than people care to believe.

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