HENRICO AND NORFOLK - Two of Virginias largest police departments are preparing to equip its officers with body cameras. On October 1, 2014 Henrico county police officers will begin wearing body cameras. On September 23, 2104, Norfolk, Va. Police Chief Mike Goldsmith announced that he ordered body cameras for his almost half of his 700 officers. The Norfolk department says the purchase is intended to improve transparency of policing and eliminate, "he said/she said" disputes. The Norfolk cameras come after police there shot and killed two men armed with knives in June. The Henrico purchase was made before the white police officer killed an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. The Norfolk department freely admits that it bought cameras because authorities were worried that the Ferguson incident would affect the department's relationship with the community.
Across the country, police agencies have started wearing body mounted cameras. Statistics show that officers that wear body cameras have fewer complaints and rarely use force to subdue citizens. The mere knowledge that they are being recorded causes officers to be more conscious of how they speak and treat people. In a test study, a small California department that employed body cameras noticed that complaints filed against them dropped by a staggering 88%, and use of force by officers dropped by 60%. Clearly when those in a position of authority know they are being watched they are less likely to abuse that authority.
About one in six departments across the country deploy the cameras, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. After the riots in Ferguson, Missouri many citizens and police have argued that police cameras are worth the expense. In the last few weeks, law enforcement agencies in at least a dozen cities, including Ferguson; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Minneapolis; and Washington, have said they are equipping officers with video cameras. In Virginia, both small jurisdictions (Orange, Waverly, Ashland) and larger ones (Falls Church) have experimented with police body cameras.
The cameras however create privacy issues for the officers and civilians. If the cameras are on at all times some lawful citizens may find themselves being recorded and having those images kept in massive data storage that comes with these cameras. For example, if you are a victim or a witness and police come into your home to take a police report, you might not want to be recorded. Specifically, sex crime victims would be especially reluctant to be filmed while describing graphic details of a graphic sexual violation. Some people are also concerned that hackers could access police recorded data.
In Henrico, the department aims to have a camera for each it's approximately 400 uniformed officers by Jan. 1, 2016. The department is using seized drug dealers assets to fund the cameras. ($800 per unit). The big expense is storing the video data. That will cost taxpayers approximately $100,000 a year. Other jurisdictions have found that reproducing videos for trials has been very expensive.
Despite the problems, the data speaks for itself. Public documentation bolsters police accountability. A Justice Department study surveying 63 police departments using body cameras concluded that the cameras had the potential to "promote the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice" in interactions between the public and law enforcement. Clearly, these cameras answer more questions than they create. Video increases the public perception of a fair opportunity to judge police / citizen interaction. No expense is too great if it saves a life or helps avoid a Ferguson, Missouri scenario in Virginia.