Day #038: Introduce “cop cams”

“Cop cams” decrease public complaints and use of police force while increasing transparency.  

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea:  Introduce “cop cams” to the Richmond Police Department and VCU Police Department.
  • Difficulty: 3 — Funding would be easier than implementation, which would raise concerns. Legal precedents would need to be established, but the benefits outweigh the consequences.

Ten days ago Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The events that have transpired since then have been a constant reminder that race relations in this country have not progressed as far as we sometimes believe.

The scope of this story quickly exploded beyond the death of Michael Brown. At its core, this is now about an entire group of citizens who have suffered repeated injury at the hands of our government since before its founding until the present–and the lack of formal institutions for them to effectively air their grievances. Considering the climate, Richmond, and other cities across the country, are equally capable of being the next Ferguson.

Plenty needs to be done at the national, state, and local levels to give voices to the underrepresented. In Richmond, in addition to being better about increasing conversation between different races and socio-economic statuses, we need to remove the sparks of doubt that can start fires. One way to do this would be with “body cams” that record video and audio on police officers.

These would remove doubt from situations–for the RPD and VCUPD it would be a tool for reducing the tension from cop-said-suspect-said situations. In Rialto, California, the introduction of small body cams on officers reduced public complaints by 88 percent and police uses of force fell by 60 percent.

Additionally, it would create a huge dataset that could be used to study policing and a large set of videos that could be used in training the next generation of police officers.

For individuals, it would augment personal recordings which are used to monitor police, and it would eliminate the police’s ability to illegally force individuals to stop recording. “Cop cams” are even endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union despite their general opposition to pervasive government surveillance.1

There are a few drawbacks. Increasing surveillance would infringe on the privacy of the police, but cops are already surrounded by dashboard cams and cameras in stations, courts, jails, and prisons. The VCUPD even recently introduced the “Noise Suppression Van” which will be armed with microphones and cameras that can be used as evidence.

“Cop cams” would also limit the ability of police to let people off or to downgrade arrests and summons. I’ll talk about the need for literal laws later in this project, but in states with ridiculous consequences for victimless crimes, arrests are often downgraded: an ounce of marijuana becomes a misdemeanor possession charge, a minor in possession of alcohol charge becomes a curfew violation.

The benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

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Rules would undoubtedly have to be put in place. Dashboard cams would remain in cars. Consequences for losing film, forgetting to turn on the cameras, or making mistakes like recording at 32x speed would be steep.

Regulations would have to be in place for access and use. If suspects and victims don’t have the freedom to release the footage to the public, then officers should be held to the same standard. Rules would also have to be in place to stop “cop cams” from becoming another tool for routine public surveillance.

Funding would be easy to find: it could come from the same federal Defense Department grants that have armed town after town with armored personal carriers, assault rifles, camouflaged uniforms, and night vision goggles.2

Another tool that could be used is “Five-O,” an app that works like Yelp for police officers that was designed by a sixteen-year-old and her family in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

We live in a world where technology can augment the memories of witnesses and help mitigate police brutality and corruption. We have an obligation to use that technology to do our best to build a safer, better, and stronger society.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo courtesy of the Richmond Police Department

  1. The ACLU article does a terrific job outlining the costs and benefits to officers and citizen from the use of “cop cams.” 
  2. Fortunately, the RPD has only received a single set of night-vision goggles through these programs.  
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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