Business is booming for body-camera manufacturers, with the value of shares seeming to rise in proportion to the number of publicized police shootings. “The body-camera industry is ‘feeling phenomenal’ after Ferguson,” read a December Washington Post headline, apparently without irony. TASER International, which makes body cameras in addition to stun guns, saw sales grow by 154 percent this past year, with projections for continued growth; its competitor Vievu broke all of its revenue records in September, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And Obama’s push for a nationwide body-camera program translates into the possibility of billions of dollars in hardware and storage revenue for TASER and other manufacturers worldwide.
Behind these profits lies a growing national consensus that too many Americans—and especially black, unarmed African-Americans—are dying at the hands of police, and that body cameras will ensure accountability in law enforcement’s interactions with the public. Just this summer in Cincinnati, an officer’s TASER body camera captured the fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old black man who was unarmed. Prosecutors are using the footage in their case against the officer who “intentionally shot” DuBose in the head, and say that the recording provides vital documentation of how a routine traffic stop escalated to murder.
But although 87 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew support police-worn body cameras in theory, little consensus has been reached about how they should be used, who should be able to access the footage, and when. So far, the actual implementation of body camera programs has remained in the hands of state or department officials. In many departments, the responsibility to record, store, review, and release footage rests with the police themselves. With cops controlling the cameras, and often writing the rules surrounding their use, anti-brutality activists fear that body-worn cameras will distract from meaningful reforms, expand surveillance, and exacerbate mass incarceration.
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The rush to outfit officers with body cameras has largely outpaced any sensible policies designed to supervise their use. According to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU and expert on body-worn cameras, policies have consistently been implemented with little public or government oversight, in ways that tend to favor the police.
“In all too many places, we are seeing too many policies that are disappointing and inadequate,” Stanley said.
Earlier this year, over 30 civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, NAACP, and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), signed a statement of shared principles on body camera policies, emphasizing that “without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice.” The coalition’s May statement recommends community input into body cam policies, public disclosure of policy, and publicly available footage whenever possible. They also recommend that departments prevent police officers from viewing footage prior to filing reports in order to maintain its “evidentiary value.”