Why aren't all police officers wearing body cams?


Late Saturday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department finally released body camera footage of Keith Lamont Scott’s death, following days of protest in Charlotte. Earlier last week, police chief Kerr Putney had sparked outrage when he told press they “shouldn’t expect” to see any firsthand footage. The clip posted online is from the perspective of a nearby responding officer. The officer who shot Scott, Brentley Vinson, wasn’t wearing a body cam.

The contents of the video are, of course, disturbing. We hear shots ring out. Scott’s wife can be heard crying out in the background. After he’s been shot, Scott is handcuffed by officers, face down on the concrete. We hear moaning. “We need to hold the wound,” an officer says. It won’t save him. Keith Lamont Scott died that day.

As distressing as the video’s contents are, its release was still essential. It’s been a painful summer of viral death video after viral death video, but this outcry for video transparency works against what many activists and protestors see as a failure of the justice system: the officer’s story becoming de-facto “truth.” Although he isn’t here to tell it, video footage allows a community to piece together what Scott’s “side” of the story might’ve been.

Ideally, body cameras protect the community in two ways—by making an officer think twice before resorting to violence and by providing hope of further investigation. The University of South Florida found a 65% drop in complaints against officers wearing body cameras. “Everybody, officers included, tend to toe the line a little better when they know they’re being videotaped,” said Wesley Jennings, a criminology professor at USF. (The exception to that rule would be stars of reality TV shows.)

Before the video’s release, Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the ACLU, explained how video footage directly impacts the affected community, possibly even staving off the outrage that fuels protests:

If a video shows clearly that a police use of force was reasonable, that is likely to dampen the anger of a community. If it clearly shows that a use of force was illegitimate, on the other hand, that is likely to spark national outrage and force a police department to seek justice through murder charges, as happened in the Walter Scott case. That can help reassure a community that justice will be done.

The body cam video may provide assurance, but it doesn’t provide answers. We still don’t know definitively what Scott was holding (a book, as his family claims, or a gun, as the officers claim), the reasoning behind his behavior, whether he posed a threat to officers, or even, given his brain damage, how aware he was of the situation. But protestors in Charlotte needed assurance that the officer’s story wouldn’t go unquestioned and Scott’s story wouldn’t go unheard. And given the international cries for video transparency, the footage provided that.

Seeing how important body cam footage can be in a situation like this leads to the question of what percentage of officers are wearing the cameras. Taser and Vievu, the largest body cam makers in the U.S., told Computerworld last year they’ve shipped cameras to 41% of the nation’s police departments. That may not perfectly reflect how widely body cams are used, however. Many police departments initially begin a small pilot program with, say, a dozen police officers before implementing them on a larger scale. As for how many have begun using them in earnest, that number may be as little as 25%, as estimated by the ACLU. Nailing down an exact number is difficult, because, as the ACLU’s Chad Marlow told Vice, “The cameras can be implemented on the state level or department level, or by pilot programs, so it’s almost impossible to keep track of the technology on a department-by-department basis.”

Still, 25% is a very low number. Why aren’t more officers using them? Quick answer: the cloud.

The cameras themselves cost between $199 and $599, which isn’t prohibitively expensive for most departments, but the budget explodes when factoring in storing uploaded footage. The cost of file storage and file management for body cameras far exceeds the cost of the cameras themselves. It’s recurring, lasts for as long as departments use the cameras, and will only grow as departments roll out more cameras to more officers, using more data and requiring more storage.

A Forbes report from 2014 broke the numbers down by monthly cost:

For Taser, the hardware is the front door to the real revenue play: its cloud storage service, called Evidence.com, which can run $15 to $55 per officer per month. Some 75% of the agencies that bought cameras in the last quarter signed up for Evidence.com, as opposed to storing the video on their own servers.

How does that scale up for larger departments? Former NYPD police commissioner, Bill Bratton, discussed the feasibility of outfitting the entire NYPD with body cameras. As he told press recently, “The question of cost, with 36,000 cops, runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

In a piece about Taser, a leading body camera manufacturer, Computerworld described how costly storage is for Birmingham police, who use roughly 300 cameras:

[T]he video cameras themselves cost about $180,000, but the department’s total outlay for a five-year contract with Taser will be $889,000. That’s because the pact not only includes a hardware replacement warranty, but the necessary cloud storage and file management service to deal with terabytes of content the cameras are producing.

You might be thinking, “Why does cloud storage cost police so much? YouTube hosts tons of video for free!” The high costs come in because of the storage security features, which Vievu and Taser describe as essential to protect the integrity of the footage and to prevent hacks; they include advanced encryption, 24/7 monitoring from online security teams, audit trails to verify files haven’t been tampered with, and grace periods so erroneously deleted data can be retrieved. (The mass deletion of body camera footage has happened in the past, unfortunately.) Both platforms are certified by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division Security Policy, which requires criminal background checks for all employees and routine audits for the physical locations of servers.

That high cost is one of the primary reasons body cameras are being adapted so gradually. Departments can opt to store footage within their own departments, but that’s feasible only on a relatively small scale, and many are already relying on outdated tech. Though the earliest body cam prototypes were introduced as early as 2009, we are still in the earliest stages of comprehensive, nationwide employment of body cameras. It will take time.

But, that doesn’t mean change isn’t coming. Following the shooting death of Michael Brown and the resulting protests in Ferguson, body camera manufacturers reported that sales increased as much as 70%. Additionally, the Department of Justice set aside $23 million in grants last year for body cameras in 32 states. What’s important now is to push for greater transparency, accountability, and urgency in releasing footage. Keith Lamont Scott’s death is bringing new scrutiny to a North Carolina law taking effect in October that requires a court order to release body cam footage to the public.

As we slowly transition into a new normal of videotaped police encounters, the first priority should be deciding how we want body cameras to function in communities. Transparency and accountability shouldn’t just be goals, they should be realities.

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