Police Body Cameras Subject of Debate in Utah

police body camera debate

Photo: Glogger/Wikimedia Commons

Two recent cases in Utah where deadly force was applied by police officers have raised questions about the use of police body cameras. In both cases, it has been determined by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office that the use of deadly force was justified. This decision was made largely as a result of the fact that both officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shootings and it was possible to evaluate their actions. While many have wondered if a national policy regarding police body cameras could have alleviated problems in the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO, incident, others are concerned about the potential implications of such a requirement.

Police Body Cameras in Utah

Two separate cases in Utah have made considerable news: the fatal shooting of Dillon Taylor and nonfatal shooting of Timothy James Peterson. While footage remains to be released regarding the Taylor incident as the result of a pending investigation, the officer in the Peterson case has been cleared as a result of the body camera he was wearing and inflammatory statements made by Peterson previous to the shooting.

In a recent Utah poll, 83 percent of Utahns stated that they strongly or somewhat agree with police body cameras or some other device that would record the officers’ interactions with the public. Currently, 145 Utah officers are wearing the cameras with 114 more scheduled to get them in upcoming months. However, the state’s largest police department, the Unified Police Department, currently prohibits police body cameras, even if an officer has purchased one on his/her own.

According to Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who oversees the Unified Police Department, he isn’t against them. He just believes they shouldn’t rush to equip every officer with a camera without making sure they have policies in place regarding privacy concerns and how the footage will be used.

“I think they promote better customer service,” Winder said. “I think they promote liability reduction for the agency. The reason to have them is not just to protect the cop.”

Pros and Cons of Police Body Cameras: Can Big Brother be a Good Thing?

Utah isn’t the only state mulling over the use of police body cameras. In a recent panel discussion on the topic, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman stated that their goal was to have all 1,800 San Diego patrol officers equipped with body cameras by the end of 2015. However, as opposed to Utah where the footage from police body cameras is available to the public through the state’s public records law, California has chosen to only release records through the court system. Zimmerman said she would reconsider her stance if public safety was at stake, such as in the case of the Ferguson, MO, shooting. The public safety isn’t the only listed benefit of police body cameras. In addition to transparency, Zimmerman believes the use of body cameras can help restore public confidence in police.

Another benefit to the cameras directly links to the Ferguson incident, but a quick YouTube search of the term “racial profiling” indicates Ferguson wasn’t the only incident where law enforcement officers have been accused of this type of behavior. The behavior by some people to treating other people differently based on their race could be affirmed or acquitted regarding police actions if police body cameras were employed more regularly. Questions of abuse of power or unnecessary use of force could also be addressed. In September, the U.S. Border patrol stated that it would start testing body cameras on their agents as a result of numerous complaints.

Another benefit that was addressed at the San Diego panel was the fact that many situations that start as hostile become calmer once a suspect knows he/she is being filmed. Even though police officers are not required to notify an individual that they are wearing a body camera, many have found it to their advantage in tense situations. “[N]umerous officers have indicated they were glad they had them,” Zimmerman said.

While police body cameras can also be beneficial tools in officer training, one of the concerns regarding the cameras is that they would be used as part of performance evaluations. Another concern is that while many newer officers approve of using the cameras, many veteran officers are struggling with adapting to the technology, especially considering that many departments only require the officers to turn it on when dealing with individuals, something veteran officers may forget to do.

Other concerns relate to privacy and how the video might be used. For example, even though videos of failed sobriety tests are prevalent online, it is generally agreed that such video shouldn’t be used to make people look foolish. Also, this video could be used out of context. An example was used of an officer entering a home where child abuse may be reported. A house may look messy because of time of day or the child has been playing, but even though no abuse may be apparent, this type of video evidence of “unfit living conditions” might be misused in divorce proceedings.

The Future of Police Body Cameras in Utah

Sheriff Winder has raised other questions regarding the use of police body cameras that he feels need to be addressed before implementing a program with the Unified Police Department, questions such as how long video records need to be kept, how they are classified, and how editing will occur. Cost will be another issue.

In order to address some of these issues, Winder has assembled a panel to study the use of police body cameras, including police officers, members of the community, and at least one person who has admitted to being “anti-police.”

Winder believes it is best to thoroughly research this before implementation in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. He referred to an article from the U.S. Department of Justice which included a letter from the Police Executive Research Forum which stated, “The decision to implement body-worn cameras should not be entered into lightly…once the public comes to expect the availability of video records–it will become increasingly difficult to have second thoughts or to scale back a body-worn camera program.”