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In Practice, Police Accountability Is Not The Main Function Of Body Cameras


As we near the end of the year, we're re-upping some stories worth a second look. This year, police body cameras made the transition from experimental tech to standard equipment. Sales exploded after the 2014 Ferguson protests as police departments scrambled to refute claims of abuse. Now the cameras have become routine, but they're not making a significant dent in the number of people shot and killed by police. NPR's Martin Kaste has looked at the first solid studies on how police act with body cams.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Washington, D.C., had the biggest study this year, of two large groups of officers - a thousand officers, roughly, in each group - their behavior, comparing outcomes. And they say there's no statistical discernible difference between the two groups of officers, whether they have cameras or not, in terms of complaints by the public, how often force is used, that sort of thing. There was another study out of Las Vegas this year, too, that did show a drop in complaints from the public, but that was a smaller study. But really the best we can say is we're not seeing any clear effect from these cameras.

FRAYER: Are cities and police departments having second thoughts? I mean, after all, this technology costs money.

KASTE: It's expensive, especially for storing the video, for maintaining that stuff on the cloud, if that's what you're doing. And yet, no, you're not hearing a rush for the exits here because in this time, these three or four years since the big push for police reform or accountability, these cameras have become a standard piece of equipment for the criminal justice system. Prosecutors now use them far more often than - for police accountability, prosecutors are using it to make cases against defendants, against members of the public who are charged with crimes. I know I've been to these offices, both public defenders and prosecutors, and they spend their whole day basically reviewing videos. The camera has become expected.

FRAYER: So this is a technology that was designed to keep tabs on police officers, but it has actually been a boon to prosecutors, who are suddenly swimming in all of this evidence that they can take to court.

KASTE: Yeah. In fact a survey last year by George Mason University of prosecutors showed that they were far more likely to have used video to prosecute a member of the public than to use the video to prosecute a police officer. What we have really is technology that quickly became sort of required for prosecution in general. Juries now expect it, and the police in the field kind of feel the pressure to get video of themselves finding evidence. There was a notorious case out of Baltimore this past summer where an officer sort of flubbed that. He had a body camera on earlier than he thought he did. It captured himself putting drugs down somewhere then circling back. Then during the time where he knows he's recording himself, he sort of acts surprised when he finds the very drugs he put there.



KASTE: He may have been reenacting a real find or planting drugs, we're not sure, but it shows how basically cops, to make a case that the prosecutors will take, have to have video.

FRAYER: Who controls the video after it's shot? Can citizens use this video to support their own claims of police abuse?

KASTE: There's no national standard on that, and that's becoming more and more of a bone of contention. In a lot of places, it's considered a public record and you can request it. But a lot of cases, you don't get to see the video because the case is under investigation, and that kind of puts it in limbo. Or, in places like California, Police departments have cited officer privacy. They kind of almost view it as a personnel record or something, and it takes a lot to get the video out. And then you see cases where departments release positive videos, officers acting heroically, but they're slow to release the bad ones. And so there's a lot of uncertainty depending on where you are about who gets to see the video and when, and it's gotten to the point where at least one academic I talked to this year said we should rethink the whole system and start giving the video to a third party to control, not to the police department.

FRAYER: Martin Kaste covers law enforcement and privacy for NPR. Thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.