Are Police Body Cameras On The Rise?

by Lauren Barbato

In the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old West Baltimore resident who was severely injured while in police custody, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced on Wednesday that the Baltimore Police Department will be equipped with body cameras by the end of 2015. At the same press conference, Rawlings-Blake also requested a federal civil rights inquiry into her city's police department, in order to see if there has been a pattern of misconduct similar to the Department of Justice findings in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year.

"We all know that Baltimore continues to have a fractured relationship between the police and the community," Rawlings-Blake said at the press conference Wednesday morning. "I'm willing to do what it takes to reform my department."

The move to equip all Baltimore police officers with body cameras is the latest step in reforming city police departments, which have come under fire over the last year after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Many activists mobilizing against what they perceive as police brutality have raised the issue of police body cameras in recent months, and even President Barack Obama has endorsed the equipment; in December 2014, Obama requested roughly $260 million in funds for police body cameras and additional training, according to NBC News.

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So, which cities will be following Baltimore's lead and be the next to equip their law enforcement officers with body cameras? First, let's look at which U.S. cities already have body cameras.

Interest In Police Body Cameras Is Increasing

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While most police departments in U.S. cities still do not use body cameras, the use of the new technology appears to be on the rise. Following the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, Vocativ surveyed the 100 most populous cities in America, and found that 41 of those cities had body cameras already in use for some of their officers. According to Vocativ, 25 cities said they had plans for body cameras, while 31 cities currently had no body cameras or future plans for them; four cities did not respond to the survey.

Oakland, San Diego, Houston, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., are among the major cities with police departments that use body cameras for at least some or most of their officers. Cities such as New York and Los Angeles have plans to implement a body-camera program, while Boston, El Paso, and Kansas City currently have no such plans. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, recent surveys conducted by DOJ divisions found that about 25 percent of the roughly 17,000 police departments in the United States currently use body cameras. The ACLU adds that 80 percent of departments are "evaluating" the technology.

Which U.S. Cities Will Be Next?

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It might be surprising that America's largest city and police force, New York, doesn't already have body cameras for its law enforcement officers. And, it might seem obvious that after the death of Garner — which was recorded and posted on social media by a bystander — New York would be the next major city to implement the body-camera program.

New York does have plans to equip some of its 34,000 officers with body cameras as soon as possible, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a press conference in December 2014 (de Blasio first announced the body camera program last September, two months after Garner's death). The NYPD rolled out just 60 body cameras in three precincts in early December, but all of the city's officers are not yet involved in the pilot program. So far, only officers in the precincts with the highest crime across the city's five boroughs are wearing body cameras.

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Unlike New York — which, as the ACLU notes in its 2015 report on police body cameras, might be too large and populous of a city to successfully use body cameras — Los Angeles is on the verge of equipping all of its law enforcement officers with body cameras, though the move is not without some controversy. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted just last week to approve body cameras for its entire officer unit. The department's body-camera plans have been circulating for the last 18 months, and Mayor Eric Garcetti said last December that the city would buy 7,000 cameras to be used by every single member of the Southern California city's police force.

Now, Los Angeles sets the stage, much like Baltimore, for major cities to follow. However, the LA Times reported last week that not everyone on the police commission agrees on how the footage from the body cameras will be reviewed, with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and a majority of other members mandating that police officers can look at the footage prior to writing their reports or speaking with internal investigators.

This could very well set up the next frontier in monitoring police activity — who gets to look at the body-camera footage, and why?

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