Scholar Warns Police Body Cams may be Used to Show Underrepresented in Worst Light - Higher Education
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Scholar Warns Police Body Cams may be Used to Show Underrepresented in Worst Light

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Of all the things that upset Gavin Long — the former U.S. Marine who fatally shot three Baton Rouge police officers Sunday — at the top of the list was the fact that authorities have thus far withheld body-worn camera footage in the July 5 police shooting of a Black man named Alton Sterling, which also took place in Baton Rouge.

Cynthia Lum is director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

Cynthia Lum is director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

“Yes they said the body cam fell off (and so allegedly thats why we couldnt see the shooting), but we (the people) still have a right to see the video no matter what happened,” Long reportedly wrote.

“Let us see what was recorded anyway!” Long continued. “We cant just take their word!”

The issue of withholding of footage from police body-worn cameras — or BWCs — is much more than just a sore spot for the slain cop killer.

It is also a contentious issue that touches on matters of community trust, transparency and privacy, and is in dire need of more research, according to Cynthia Lum, associate professor of criminology at George Mason University and author of “Existing and Ongoing Body Worn Camera Research: Knowledge Gaps and Opportunities.”

“On the one hand, they can be useful to increase transparency and accountability,” Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at GMU, said of BWCs.

“But on the other hand, BWCs may be the most useful in protecting the police against citizen complaints, which I don’t think proponents of BWCs initially envisioned as a goal.”

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Asked about laws in some states — such as North Carolina and Missouri — that were recently passed to restrict public access to BWC footage, Lum stated that the issue of privacy is “a real one, and is not simply about a belief that transparency will be reduced if privacy is protected.”

“Remember, BWCs aren’t pointed at the police ― they are pointed at the public,” Lum said. “They will film people when they are at their worst — emotionally, physically, and psychologically.

“Undoubtedly, BWCs will also film people who are poor, downtrodden or down on their luck, and often, communities of color,” Lum continued. “I think there is a legitimate worry that access to BWC footage (and then displaying it on YouTube, etc.) will show these communities in a negative light, continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes.”

Although the issue of BWCs perpetuating negative stereotypes isn’t one that gets amplified much, Lum cited what is perhaps a more practical concern that could arise from the public release of BWC footage — and that is the potential for some segments of the public to “shy away from calling the police for help if they think they might be filmed.”

“Again, these are all just hypotheses,” said Lum, who is principal investigator for the “Creating a Blueprint Document to Guide Implementation of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report.”

“We need much more research to better understand the impact of BWCs on society and the tradeoffs between privacy and transparency when they are used,” Lum said.

Although Lum cites the need for more research on BWCs, a seminal piece of research is cited in the “Technology and Social Media” portion of The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

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“The results of this 12-month study strongly suggest that use of BWCs by the police can significantly reduce both officer use of force and complaints against officers,” states the study, titled “The Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

The study found that the officers wearing the cameras had 87.5 percent fewer incidents of use of force and 59 percent fewer complaints tan the officers not wearing the cameras, according to The Final Report on President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“One of the important findings of the study was the impact BWCs might have on the self-awareness of officers and citizens alike,” the report states. “When officers are acutely aware that the cameras are recording their behavior, everyone behaves better.

“The results of this study strongly suggest that the increase in self-awareness contributes to more positive outcomes in police-citizen interaction.”

The report notes further that at a time in which anyone with a cell phone camera can record video footage of a police encounter, BWCs “help police departments ensure that events are captured from an officer’s perspective”

“But when the public does not believe its privacy is being protected by law enforcement, a breakdown in community trust can occur,” the report states.

But recent events suggest breakdowns can also occur when police hold back footage of fatal encounters.

The shooting of Alton Sterling, for instance, was captured by two citizen cameras, but a source has reportedly said the BWCs worn by the Baton Rouge officers involved in his shooting are not as clear as those two other videos.

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Of course, the issue of BWCs and whether or not to release their footage is just one of several issues in a complex puzzle of what it takes to make officers better at executing their duties.

The President’s Task force has sought to get law enforcement agencies to incentivize higher education for police officers, but recent ambush attacks on police, such as those in Dallas and Baton Rouge,  may lead the agencies to focus more on training that deals with tactical responses, said Scott H. Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University.

“What is disappointing about the lack of tangible progress on many of the recommendations of the task force is that this administration has six months left in office, two of which will be as a lame duck,” Decker said. “New administrations like their own initiatives.”

More troubling, Decker said, is the “growing movement away from the balance of the Warrior and the Guardian toward the Warrior.”

“In the end training and education have to serve the role of the officer in the community,” Decker said. “There has been an uneasy balancing of the ‘warrior’ and ‘guardian’ roles and the Task Force clearly wants more of a balance and integration of guardian roles.

“Recent events in Dallas, Michigan and now Baton Rouge will make that more difficult politically,” Decker said.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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