A small portion of officers with the New York Police Department (NYPD) will begin wearing body cameras this fall as part of a pilot program to test the devices, the city’s police commissioner has announced.
Officers who patrol high-crime areas in the city’s five boroughs will be voluntarily outfitted with one of two varieties of camera in order to capture audio and video recordings of interactions with the public, according to the department. One camera, manufactured by Vievu, is a single piece worn on an officer’s shirt. The other camera is a two-piece unit made by Taser International that can be mounted on an officer’s shoulder, collar or glasses.
The pilot project will use 60 cameras; the department has nearly 35,000 uniformed officers.
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the cameras will protect police officers and citizens, and also will provide prosecutors with valuable evidence for trials.
“The NYPD is committed to embracing new and emerging technology in order to continue to keep New York City safe,” Bratton said in a Sept. 4 statement.
In a ruling last year, a federal judge ordered NYPD to test body cameras after finding that the department’s stop-and-frisk tactic was unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted minorities. Bratton said the precincts selected for the pilot project had the largest number of stop-and-frisks in 2012.
Departments across the country have begun testing and implementing body cameras as a way to improve officers’ contact with the public. The New York Daily News reported that nearly 4,000 small and medium-sized departments have been using cameras, while big city forces in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Calif., also have started testing them.
Calls for officers to wear body cameras have grown louder following the August 2014 fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Most comments I have seen speak to how the cameras keep officers in line, but in my experience, cameras also keep the person contacted in line as well,” said Reynolds, who spent nearly 30 years with the Melbourne (Florida) Police Department, including serving as Deputy Chief. “Dash-cams have probably cleared more officers than convicted them, when the aggressor is shown to be the contact rather than the officer.”
The effectiveness of body cameras also depends on the governing policies. The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to release a federal policy on the cameras in the coming weeks. The specifics of the NYPD camera policy, including issues of confidentiality and when the cameras must be activated, are being finalized.
Initial research appears to support the contention that body cameras reduce complaints against officers, as well as the number of incidents that require force. A study by the Rialto (Calif.) Police Department in 2012 and 2013 found an 88% drop in the number of complaints filed against officers compared to the previous 12 months, The New York Times reported. Just half of the department’s officers wore cameras at any given time during the study.
Reynolds said the findings of the Rialto study suggest that “word was out on the street about police recording encounters.”
“It can be argued any number of ways, but fewer conflicts and complaints is good no matter the motivation.”
Still, Reynolds noted that the use of cameras is not a failsafe solution. For one thing, the cameras record officers’ words but not their physical actions.
“There is no independent record of whether the officer’s non-verbal actions are congruent with what you hear in an officer-POV recording device,” he said. “Hopefully these are rare, but I know of a case where an officer off-camera was deliberately making faces and gesturing at the suspect to elicit an aggressive response.
“In that case, the suspect was at first thought to be having a psychotic breakdown because her actions were so inappropriate to the situation the viewer could see on the screen,” Professor Reynolds said. “Only during trial preparations was it revealed that there were witnesses to the officer’s conduct. She was absolved and he was fired.”