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Police body cameras and community interactions

A police body camera used by a police department in New Jersey.
A police body camera used by a police department in New Jersey.
Joe Warner/South Jersey Times/Landov

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The New York Police Department on Wednesday announced plans for a small pilot program that would outfit dozens of officers with body cameras to record their interactions. 

But just hours later, a Grand Jury in New York declined to file charges against an officer who appeared --  in a cellphone video -- to use a choke hold on a suspect. His name was Eric Garner, and he died shortly after the incident.

It's making many wonder: Given the fact that the encounter between Garner and the police was recorded, are body cameras an effective tool for insuring that police are operating in a fair and lawful manner?

Lindsay Miller , a senior research associate with The Police Executive Research Forum, and recently recently analyzed camera programs for the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Q - What were your findings about the use of the technology?

We spoke with agencies across the country and said that they made many benefits in terms of making their actions more transparent to the public ... one thing we've heard is that, in a lot of places, they've really improved the interactions between the police and the members public in the sense of improving behavior on both sides of the camera.   

Q - What about when cops are behaving badly; how effective can body cameras be in respect to punishing officers?

We've seen several examples of agencies using them to identify officers who are engaging in misconduct ... In Phoenix, for example, they fired an officer who was caught on his own camera engaging in some misconduct and verbal abuse of the people he interacted with. They fired him, and released his camera footage to the media.

Q - As we saw with the Garner case, which was caught on a cellphone video camera, it didn't seem to sway the grand jury even though to most of us it looked like an excessive use of force. Does this situation undercut the argument for cameras?

No one is saying that cameras are going to eliminate all improper behavior by police ... This is a good example of how everyone needs to really manage expectations when it comes to the cameras. They can be a wonderful tool to help improve accountability and transparency, but they are just one tool.

Q - The Garner case has really struck a nerve with people. What's your take away from the Garner case?

I think it does show that notions of privacy have changed in the sense that everyone is filming everyone these days. The NYPD didn't even have body cameras at that point, but the incident was still caught on camera. That's one thing we heard from the agencies we worked with. They realize that in this day and age, their actions are going to be public. So I think they really want to try to improve accountability and transparency on their end.