Law enforcement officers across the country have received a lot of bad press over the last year--much of it deserved. Police officers in Seattle are attempting to head off the types of criticism that have plagued cities like Ferguson and New York. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) announced that it will begin posting video taken from officers’ body cameras on YouTube, to be available to the public.
Body cameras are small cameras, most frequently worn by law enforcement, that provide a first-person account of an officers interaction with the public. Many have called for increased use of body cameras after several incidences across the nation where unarmed black men were fatally shot by police officers. Body cameras have been praised for the increased accountability they provide for both law enforcement and the public. Proposals for widespread implementation of these devices, however, have been met with resistance. Several police departments around the country have claimed that body cameras will pose as a distraction, be too expensive, or present a safety issue for officers.
To avoid privacy concerns, the videos posted by the SPD on YouTube will be blurred so as to protect the identity of members of the public. The SPD, however, is encouraging residents to submit information requests if they wish to view the unedited tapes. The plan is to eventually post police body camera videos daily.
The SPD began outfitting about a dozen police officers with the body cameras late last year. Unlike other areas of the country, support for the body cameras has been widespread among stakeholders in Seattle.
Supporters include the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which had initially expressed reservations about body cameras. The guild's president, Ron Smith, has stated he believes body cameras on Ferguson police officers likely would have prevented the civil unrest that followed the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown. He feels the body cameras will protect officers from false claims of misconduct.
The city council is also in support of implementing the body cameras. Council member Bruce Harrell, head of the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, estimates it will cost the city about 400 thousand dollars to outfit nearly 700 officers with the cameras. The cameras, however, could potentially result in cost savings. They cost about one-fifth as much as the dashboard mounted cameras in police cruisers, and the cameras may be equipped so they can be mounted on the dashboard in place of the more expensive cameras.
From a criminal defense standpoint, the biggest issue surrounding the use of body cameras is balancing transparency with privacy rights. A constant issue facing those accused of criminal offenses is a case coming down to the accused's word against the officers. In the eyes of many judges and jurors, an officer will often be more credible, even if his or her story is full of holes. A body camera offers the opportunity for the real story to be told. Furthermore, the simple knowledge that an officer's activities are being recorded will likely be enough to prevent the officer from engaging in conduct that is in violation of your constitutional rights. People's rights to privacy, however, need to be taken into account, and there need to be protections put in place to assure Seattleites' rights are not violated because they were unwillingly videotaped during a police response to an incident.
There are undoubtedly novel issues that will need to be addressed in light of the increasing prevalence of body cameras on law enforcement officers, but overall, increased accountability for law enforcement will be a positive change for those accused of crimes in Seattle.