Every Cop Should Want to Be On Camera

Every Cop Should Want to Be On Camera September 6, 2013

Ronald Bailey at Reason writes about a study of one city where all police officers were required to wear video cameras on their uniforms at all times when on duty. As one would expect, the results should be cheered both by civil libertarians and by the police officers themselves.

Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60 percent. Watched cops are polite cops.

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), calls police-worn video cameras “a win/win for both the public and the police.” Win/win because video recordings help shield officers from false accusations of abuse as well as protecting the public against police misconduct.

So why aren’t the police departments demanding such cameras? The answer is in that last sentence: it protects the public against police misconduct. Bailey has some suggestions on policies that should accompany a camera requirement:

In order to make sure that both the public and police realize the greatest benefits from body-worn video cameras, a number of policies need to be implemented. For example, police officers must be subject to stiff disciplinary sanctions if they fail to turn their cameras on each time they interact with the public. In addition, items obtained during an unrecorded encounter would be deemed a violation of the subject’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and excluded as evidence, unless there were extenuating circumstances, such as a broken camera. Similarly, failure to record an incident for which a patrolman is accused of misconduct should create a presumption against that officer.

Officer-worn video cameras do have the potential to violate the privacy of citizens. After all, the police frequently are dealing with people when they are having one of the worst days of their lives. For instance, police often enter people’s houses to investigate incidents. In such cases, video of someone’s literal or metaphorical dirty laundry is nobody else’s business. Consequently, Stanley argues that strong rules regarding the retention, use, and disclosure of videos from police-worn cameras must be established and enforced. For example, videos should be retained for no more than 30 to 60 days, unless flagged. Of course, if the video contains evidence of a crime it should be retained just as any other evidence would be. Flagging would also occur for any incident involving force or a citizen complaint. With the appropriate strong privacy protections in place, very little of police-recorded video would ever be retained or viewed.

Officers should also be required to notify people that they are being recorded. Some preliminary evidence suggests that both police and citizens behave better when they know that they are being recorded. Additionally, the police should not have discretion to release any video to the public. For example, police would be barred from “leaking” videos like that of the drunken actress Reese Witherspoon being arrested in Atlanta for disorderly conduct after a traffic stop. (For what it is worth, the Atlanta police department denies releasing the Witherspoon scene.) Anyone who is recorded, on the other hand, should have access to the video and they should be allowed to consent to public release. Subjects who are incidentally recorded should be blacked out or blurred if the video is released.

All good policies.

"I guess it's ol' just speaking hyperbolically defense."

Wingnuts Want Alec Baldwin Tried for ..."
"Crops are rotting on the field because we've deported those people you assert lack "the ..."

Starnes Wants Refugees Treated Like an ..."
"In what war has an army invaded another country and them set about taking low ..."

Starnes Wants Refugees Treated Like an ..."
"This is the ass clown who has a movie where he claims in 2011 JESUS ..."

Taylor’s Third Explanation of Hurricane Michael

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • tbp1

    All good policies.

    …so very little chance of their being widely implemented.

  • cswella

    How often can you cut problems down by 88% or 60%? Love this idea.

  • Officer-worn video cameras do have the potential to violate the privacy of citizens. After all, the police frequently are dealing with people when they are having one of the worst days of their lives.

    The single best argument against the show COPS.

    When one of the worst days of someone’s life involves interaction with the police, that suggests a good rule of thumb would be that: a) recording it should be mandatory, and b) releasing it for public view should be forbidden.

  • Alverant

    But isn’t COPS edited?

    If one wanted to argue against police cameras I would involve undercover officers who can’t be seen as cops for their own protection. In that case I’d have to ask if there is already a public record of pictures of police officers, graduation photos for example.

  • exdrone

    So does this mean that people’s statements can be used against them prior to them being mirandized?

  • wscott


    police would be barred from “leaking” videos…Anyone who is recorded, on the other hand, should have access to the video and they should be allowed to consent to public release.

    Sounds reasonable, but overly simplistic. “Anyone who is recorded” would also include the cop wearing it and possibly other officers. They may be public employees, but they still have some privacy rights; how would their rights be protected? What about the EMT who also responded to the incident (who may be public or privately-employed)? What about a domestic dispute where abusive boyfriend demands access to the video, but abused girlfriend doesn’t want him to have it?


    None of these are insurmountable, and some may have addressed elsewhere. But it’s not quite as simple as all that.



    So why aren’t the police departments demanding such cameras? The answer is in that last sentence: it protects the public against police misconduct.

    I’m sure that’s part of it. But more simply than that, most people of any profession wouldn’t be entirely thrilled with their boss filming every single thing they do. (Does your boss know you’re reading atheist blogs at your desk right now?) Personally, I think it’s a great idea, but we shouldn’t be too surprised that even good cops aren’t rushing to embrace it. That’s just human nature.

  • DrVanNostrand


    Statements made before Miranda are admissible in a wide variety of situations. Furthermore, the police can testify as to anything the defendant says, and they are almost always believed (If it’s not admissible he can’t testify, and I assume using the recording would follow similar rules). At least if there is a camera, the defendant might have some ability to challenge if the officer misinterprets, misremembers, or outright lies about their statements.

  • lofgren

    I’m not a lawyer but I believe the law is that the only time your statements can’t be used against you is between arrest and mirandizing. Statements made prior to arrest are always admissable. If an inadmissable statement is made on camera, but the footage contains other evidence of the crime, there is a handy little button on most TVs labeled “mute” which prevents the audience from hearing audio content.

    These regulations deal with most of my concerns about lapel cameras. My only other concern is whether this will affect cooperation, either by the public or by confidential informants. There should be a process and guidelines for anonymizing civilians caught on tape and maybe even some very limited situations where the cops are allowed to turn off, muffle, or obstruct the camera’s view. (Maybe even an “anonymous mode” that blurs everything just enough that you can still discern the action without being able to recognize people’s faces?)

  • wscott

    @ Exdrone: IINAL, but I believe anything you say before you’re Mirandized can already be used against you as long as the police didn’t solicit it. Contrary to Every Cop Show Ever, the police don’t have to Mirandize you when you’re arrested, just when you’re questioned. So if they put you in the back of the car to take you to the station for questioning, and on the way without prompting you say something incriminating, that’s usually fair game. (And yeah, I’m not saying there isn’t room for abuse, but there it is.)

  • wscott

    Another thought: I believe several states have laws where both parties have to consent to being filmed. How would that work here?

  • lofgren

    So if they put you in the back of the car to take you to the station for questioning, and on the way without prompting you say something incriminating, that’s usually fair game.

    But isn’t that exactly what happened in the original Miranda case? The cops put him in the car and drove him around until he confessed.

  • doublereed

    88%? That’s absurd. How often are complaints filed against cops??? That genuinely surprises me. People really don’t file complaints if the incident is recorded?

    These sound great.

  • I think that the information recorded by the camera needs to go into a storage device that the individual cops cannot have access to, so the information is not “accidentally” lost or destroyed.

  • uncephalized

    @exdrone #5 I would assume that the standard rules apply, which I think *the way I understand it somebody correct me if I’m wrong* would mean that statements recorded before rights are read would be legally usable by the LEOs in establishing probable cause for arrest or search, but unusable later as “admission of guilt” evidence in court. This would be very easy to enforce by simply editing out any and all verbal statements made in the recording by the accused up until the point where rights are read. Then you could use the video otherwise unaltered in court (or maybe even completely unaltered, only at the discretion of the defense, since it’s the defendant’s 4th and 5th amendments that are at issue and they should be able to waive that protection if they so choose). The editing would of course need to be done by a neutral third party not in any way on the payroll of, or politically connected to, any law enforcement agency in order for me to trust it.

    I would suggest simply cutting the video to only show the section after rights are read, but I can see a few problems, which are a) pre-arrest video could be important to either side in demonstrating to the court that the arrest, etc. was/wasn’t legal, b) the defendant’s visible actions prior to Mirandizing might still be admissible evidence, even if their words typically aren’t, and c) words themselves can be a crime, e.g. threatening an officer during arrest, in which case AFAIK they would be admissible and relevant regardless of when they occurred. Court judges could have authority in deciding what is and isn’t admissible and what redactions would need to be made to present the evidence legally–with any disputes settled in camera to avoid unjustly influencing the courtroom. Seems like a way more solid system than the way we do it now, which essentially boils down to: “you, slimeball defendant, stand accused by this noble, upstanding LEO. It’s your word against his and you’re the probably-guilty guy sitting in the hot seat in a bad suit, so he wins. Better luck next time.”

  • DrVanNostrand


    I was unsure if that was the case, so I looked for an article about the case. According to this:


    he was interrogated at the police station for hours before confessing.

  • Artor

    I’d heard another method that effectively reduced police brutality without even being invasive upon the (poor, put-upon, persecuted) police. Simply that the arresting officer can never be the same as the booking officer. The cop that just chased down a suspect and is pissed off for having to drop his donut and run for half a block, does not get to have that suspect locked in the back of his car, and does not escort that person into a concrete cell. That is done by a bored cop at the station who just wants to get back to his sudoku. I don’t recall where this was tried, but according to the account I heard, it got a similar reduction in brutality accusations.

  • wscott

    @ 15: That was my understanding as well. Tho car vs. station isn’t really what’s relevant; you’re in police custody either way. What matters is “The evidence must have been the product of interrogation” – in short, they must have asked or otherwise prompted you to make the statement. There have been a number of cases where cops tried to get around this by stunts like: not asking questions per se, but making statements or doing thing designed to provoke a response; letting someone “sweat” for extended periods to see if they’ll crack and spontaneously offer something up, and so forth. IIRC, this is one area where the courts haven’t been terribly forgiving of such shenanigans.

    Still IANAL, and I recognize this is a gross oversimplification. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miranda_warning#Fourth_requirement

  • dogmeat

    If you aren’t being taken into custody, you don’t have to be Mirandized. Anything you say can still be used as evidence in court. Miranda is for custodial interrogation, not for “you’re too stupid to keep your mouth shut.”

  • wscott

    @ dogmeat: Exactly. The custodial part is a whole `nother can of worms. The police can ask you all the questions they want before they arrest you, and Miranda doesn’t apply. If you walk into a police station voluntarily to report a crime, Miranda doesn’t apply. If the officer at some point says “You can leave if you want, but we’d really like to ask you some questions first,” Miranda doesn’t apply…


    Just once I’d like to see a cop show/movie get Miranda right, if only as a public service.

  • Peter B

    Cop cameras are a good idea. The recordings should be encrypted to prevent “accidental” misuse. Official uses include

    * written report writing by the officer

    * random review by superiors

    * careful release to the media to refute allegations of misconduct

    * evidence in legal proceedings

    Camera must be on during the entire time the officer is on duty. This includes staff meetings. This includes water cooler discussions. This includes bathroom breaks.

    The encryption must be capable of proving the specific unit that made the recording along with a time stamp that can not be faked. This part is needed to withstand allegations of police tampering.

    Raw footage must be available to defense lawyers with appropriate masking or outright cuts to protect the privacy of witnesses and non involved parties. Doing this and maintaining the technical assurance in the previous paragraph is not a technical problem. It could be a challenge to protect witnesses where the defendant must not learn who talked to the cops.

  • uncephalized

    Well there you go. Sounds like all the procedures I suggested above wouldn’t even be necessary, then. Cool beans.