Table of Contents
Eric Garner’s choking death in New York and Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri have raised the issue of the use of force by police in the course of duty. These two controversial incidents, neither of which has resulted in criminal charges being filed against the police officers involved, underscore the distrust that many Americans feel about those who are employed to safeguard them. Law enforcement personnel will always have to use force at while on duty, but legitimate questions regarding exactly how much force is necessary will also be omnipresent.
Misguided retaliatory ambush shootings of police officers in New York and Missouri following the initial incidents mentioned previously illustrate the need to reduce the anxiety and anger that exists in many with regard to law enforcement. While these criminal acts cannot be justified, it is necessary to address the anger that motivated them. Increasing trust by finding ways to reduce or eliminate similar inflammatory initial incidents must be a primary component of this strategy.
Moving forward, identifying and implementing ways to document contact that occurs between law enforcement and the civilian population must be a priority. The unreliability of witness testimony makes these incidents difficult or impossible to reconstruct after they have occurred. Wearable recording technologies, such as body cameras, offer a possibility to record these interactions and reduce speculation about why they may have taken place. In order to increase transparency and trust between law enforcement and citizens, body cameras provide a viable solution to document incidents involving the use of force.
Increasing Public Confidence
Defining excessive force is necessary in order to prevent it, but accomplishing it is a difficult task. Segan relates that, “Excessive force is a slippery metaphor: experts say it’s any force beyond what’s necessary to arrest a suspect and keep police and bystanders safe” (2014). The author continues with a discussion of the difficulties that police officers face in real-time threat assessment and containing emotions in adrenaline-filled situations. Any human exercising judgment in such conditions will inevitably make mistakes. It is both reasonable and necessary for officers to move toward protecting themselves and innocent citizens who happen to be in the immediate vicinity when attempting to apprehend a violent suspect.
The Boston Globe states that the most important factor in making these critical, split-second decisions is cool-headed restraint (2015). In a recent editorial recalling the Boston Police Department’s use of less-lethal force in apprehending a barricaded suspect, this measured response was rightfully lauded. When viewed in contrast to other recent uses of force by law enforcement personnel nationally, the arrest of this suspect without the use of lethal force is a positive example that is worthy of emulation.
For all the recent incidents that were not resolved so peacefully, however, it is questionable whether there is the perception that excessive force is commonplace accurate. Segan cites statistical research compiled by the National Police Use of Force Database Project showing that 44 percent of documented uses of police force were excessive according to review boards. The project compiled data over a four-year period from 1994 through 1998. While these numbers reflect only incidents deemed excessive after review, they still show a very low rate of occurrence.
Perception of excessive police force may surpass the actual incident rate, but the difficulty in determining the events surrounding the use of force after the fact brings uncertainty to this concept. Objectively recording these encounters would have a beneficial impact on monitoring and adjudicating them. Body cameras offer the possibility of accomplishing this.
Portable Recording Devices
Recording devices, such as dashboard cameras, in police cruisers have been in use for some time, and the effectiveness they demonstrated in documenting field sobriety tests is beyond dispute. However, their limited perspective, however, limits their effectiveness. It is impossible to record an incident unless it occurs directly in front of the patrol vehicle. Obviously, officers patrolling on foot, bicycle or horseback do not have the option to employ this technology. Body cameras offer a lightweight portable option to record police as they interact with others during the course of their shifts.
The greatest benefit of employing body cameras is the objective visual record they provide. Either worn on a headband, specially mounted on sunglasses, or attached to the shoulder or chest, they reveal from the officer’s perspective what happened if questions arise later. The data from these cameras is downloaded following each shift and can be reviewed if the need arises. This provides protection against civilians from excessive force and peace officers from fraudulent charges of excessive force. This resulting transparency is beneficial in two important ways to the communities, in which they are used.
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The first benefit of using portable recording devices is the reduction of force used by police agencies. Mire reports that, “the Rialto Police Department in California reported a 60 percent decrease in uses of force after implementing the cameras” (2014). Reducing the necessary use of force should be the goal of every law enforcement agency. The quantified reduction of force observed with the use of these cameras creates a strong argument for deploying resources for the acquisition and use of this technology. An ancillary benefit would result from the corresponding decrease in complaints against police departments and the expense of investigation and potential litigation that result from this.
Miller and Tolliver describe the second benefit, “Officers wearing cameras have reported a noticeable improvement in the quality of their encounters with the public. With both sides behaving better, community relations will improve” (2014). When people are aware that their actions are recorded, they act accordingly. This can be applied to both officers and civilians. With both sides in any police contact conducting themselves more prudently, the need for force decreases and trust within that community increases.
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Police agencies that have experimented with the use of body cameras have reported positive results. Allen describes the decision made by the Detroit Police Department to expand their trial, “It was decided to do the pilot program after officers participating in a previous test "very strongly recommended that we go to the next step" (2015). With both sides of this issue endorsing the effectiveness and increased confidence that results from employing body cameras, it is difficult to imagine a reason not to embrace this tool.
Police officers will always have to use force to impel compliance with non-cooperative individuals they encounter in the course of their work. Most people understand and accept this necessity, but legitimate criticism of excessive force by law enforcement personnel warrants changes in standard procedures. If the public does not trust those who guard them, there is a reduction in the effectiveness of the community’s law enforcement efforts. Open hostility toward officers such as the incidents observed nationally in recent times is a clear indication that confidence in law enforcement needs to be improved.
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Both literally and figuratively, the increased visibility provided by the use of body cameras should be the primary tool used to increase public opinion of police departments and those who work in them in the United States. The transparency that they promise yields benefits both tangible and intangible, and will allow a greater comfort level for those who come into contact with law enforcement. Using this technology will provide objective evidence in the event that a controversy develops, and improve community relations where they are used. The need for the community to believe in the inherent benevolence of law enforcement demands the use of portable recording devices as law enforcement technique evolves.