One Former Police Officer Makes the Case for Cameras

Cameras are everywhere—in police cars, on officers’ bodies, on civilian cell phones. Let’s fix the unresolved problems.
(Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Apr 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Eugene P. Ramirez is a Los Angeles attorney and a former police officer. He has written for Police Chief magazine and has appeared on MSNBC and Al Jazeera America.

On the day Americans first saw video of a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott, I was in my hotel room, nearly two hours away, preparing for a practice round at the Master’s Golf Tournament. I watched the video on my iPad and could see Scott, who was apparently unarmed, running away from the officer, Michael Slager. In the video, which was taken by a civilian, we see Slager fire at least eight shots toward Scott. Scott falls to the ground and is eventually handcuffed. It isn’t a good scene. The first question that popped into my mind: Was the video edited? Soon, the North Charleston Police Department released video from a camera attached to the dashboard of Slager’s patrol car.

All of this points to a key moment. Cameras are pervasive—increasingly put in patrol cars and on police officers’ bodies, in building surveillance devices and, of course, on civilian cell phones. The pervasiveness of cameras is a great thing for modern police work. But it has also uncorked a bundle of complicated problems, and questions, that we must deal with.

When I was a police officer in California in the 1980s, we didn’t have all this technology. We didn’t even use audio recorders. I started noticing cameras in the late 1990s—first mounted in patrol cars and then placed on police officers’ bodies. Now, it seems, many police departments want the cameras, and for good reason: Everyone’s behavior is on full display. In one study, use of body cameras by Rialto, California, police led to a nearly 88 percent decline in civilian complaints and a 60 percent drop in use of force.

The truth is, not everybody is embracing the cameras, partly because of the cost. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, has taken a $250,000 gift from the Los Angeles Dodgers and other private donors to cover the cost of officers’ cameras. Cameras mounted in patrol cars are also expensive and don’t always work. Once you get too far away from a dash-mounted camera, no footage of an incident will be recorded. The audio recorder won’t pick up the sound of an incident that’s too far away. Let’s not forget the cost of storing all that footage.

But there are a couple key issues with cameras that we need to resolve. The first issue with body cameras is, where do you place the camera? If you put it on an officer’s chest, you won’t see what happens over a wall. If the camera is placed on his glasses, on the right side of his head, you may not record trouble that’s lurking to the left. When an officer is involved in a shooting, no one can just rely on the camera to understand the entire picture. You may need two or three cameras to really see and capture what’s happening. That’s not practical.

We haven’t truly started to deal with the privacy issues, and there are many. Some police departments require officers to keep cameras turned on for their entire shift. So what does that mean for two officers who are in a patrol car and want to bash their supervisor? Well, they can’t. What if the officer wants to use the bathroom during his shift? That’s going to be recorded. If an officer goes into a college dorm room filled with naked young women, the body camera will record the scene. What do we do if someone requests the video?

The truth is, most officers are willing to use cameras. We want to be transparent about our work. We want to be held accountable. Cameras will help improve our relationships with the communities we serve. But we are all worried about the unresolved issues, especially privacy. The unresolved issues set the stage for problems for officers. An officer has less than two seconds to make up his mind about whether to use deadly force. If and when video of the incident comes out, we’re going to have days—maybe years—of people second-guessing officers. We don’t need that.

The bottom line is, cameras aren’t going anywhere. But let’s deal with the pressing issues to make sure they work for all of us.