Cameras Save Lives!

The rioting this week in Ferguson, MO, has deeper roots than I want to explore right now. But the spark, the August 9 shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white cop, Darren Wilson, is something that happens all too often.

The real story is murky at best. Maybe the confrontation was violent in two directions. Maybe Brown was running away when the first shots were fired, maybe he was charging the cop or maybe he was bowing his head in surrender or pain.
There are many reports of what exactly happened between Mr. Brown and Officer Wilson.

What we do know is that the cop involved was not wearing a body camera. A report from the Police Foundation says there’s a strong calming effect of body cameras:

“The findings suggest more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.”

Why? Two reasons: because cops are less likely to overuse force when they are being recorded; and because arrestees, when confronted with video evidence, often retract their complaints.

This has been analyzed in the New York Times and National Public Radio, even before Ferguson.

The cameras cost some money, of course, and the data needs secure, third-party storage. One such storage site is The ability to use body-cam data in court requires chain of custody and security from tampering, which isn’t free. But that cost must be balanced against the liability costs saved from citizen-police complaints, and the potential savings in court costs if arrested people are confronted with immediate evidence that could influence their willingness to plea-bargain.

And the economic cost is trivial compared to the potential value of improving relations between police and the communities they are supposed to be protecting and serving. Cameras aren’t magic, and problems – especially racial tensions – won’t fade immediately. But isn’t preventing another Ferguson, another Rodney King, another Amadou Diallo, worth something?