Sunday, August 28, 2016

Electronic “Eye Witnesses” for Law Enforcement Protect both Citizens and Officers

By Shawn McCullough, Delaware CSG Student

In a day when the “Black Lives Matter” movement and events surrounding the group’s creation and rise to prominence have directed a heightened level of scrutiny toward the people who protect us, law enforcement body cameras are an indispensable tool. The benefits of these cameras vastly outweigh the cost of providing them. Technology has advanced in the last fifteen years to such a degree that the cameras can be worn without impeding an officer’s ability to perform whatever action is required of them.  Body cams provide a dual measure of accountability and protection for officers and civilians alike, furnishing an overall positive effect on the national attitude toward law enforcement. 
Language of Liberty

Most body cameras are the size of the average iPhone 5. Designed to strap to an officers uniform or vest close to the shoulder, the devices can be turned on or off at the officer’s discretion and are capable of both audio and video recording. The average price of a quality body camera is $200-$300. In addition, massive improvements have been made in the cost of video storage. An officer can simply download captured footage into a server at the end of every shift.

California, South Carolina, Nevada, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida and Maryland have already passed legislation regarding mandatory body cameras for their officers and have seen a huge increase in public approval for law enforcement. Illinois, Texas, Washington DC, Massachusetts, and Colorado have allocated funds for the purpose of providing body cameras and have received support from the police precincts in each respective state. A number of other states have sponsored studies on the viability of body cameras, many of which are coming back with positive results.

Some have raised concerns about body cams, referring to a violation of privacy. However, Part 1, Title 18, Section 2(d), of the US Code states that  It shall not be unlawful under this chapter for a person not acting under color of law to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication where such person is a party to the communication or where one of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to such interception unless such communication is intercepted for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortuous act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or of any State”

Essentially, this federal law states that, as long as one person engaged in the conversation (including the one recording) gives their prior consent, it is perfectly legal unless it is for the purpose of committing a crime. The law provides the necessary groundwork for the use of body cameras and puts to rest any qualms about violation of privacy. 

Because of recent events in the news, the accountability of law enforcement officers is under greater scrutiny than ever before. Yet a much-needed sense of context is sorely lacking in the media’s harsh and critical analysis of the recent actions of officers.  It’s possible that body cameras would provide this context.  If an officer could turn on their body camera at the beginning of every civilian interaction and capture video evidence that they handled themselves in an appropriate manner should a situation suddenly go south, it should all but eliminate the controversies that have plagued the honor of law enforcement officers across the nation. No one is capable of making the right, split-second decision in every situation, especially when a wrong decision could cost an officer his or her life. Also, legitimate concerns still exist about the abuse of authority by a few officers. Cameras could offer a measure of higher accountability and in so doing, protect both officers and civilians.

Many videos clips that have come out surrounding the controversies in the news are taken after the incidents have already escalated.  Whether there was more video footage leading up to the incident in question that was not shown to the public is a question investigators must address with the media. As a result of quick sound bites and edited or missing video, it is easy to see how some might question the integrity of the officers involved. All the public can see is how the officer responded, without seeing the suspect’s previous actions or know other vital information about the stop. This type of reporting is irresponsible. It is absolutely essential to have all the facts in a case before accusing law enforcement or a citizen of wrongdoing. A news story without all the facts can devastate an innocent individual for life and in the case of law enforcement, can cost the lives of other officers.

The evidence provided by body cameras can prevent cases like Freddie Gray’s and others from becoming an exaggerated and over-reported news story that undermines and jeopardizes our nation’s law enforcement. Body cams can help provide clear and concise information as to who is truly in the wrong, making a just ruling much more likely in court.  Clearly, the media must act in a responsible manner toward those who protect us, as the consequences of sensationalized reporting has generated fear and flared tempers, costing the lives of law enforcement officers across the nation.  However, if the facts show there is a clear case of abuse of authority, his or her superiors must deal with the officer appropriately. In either case, the responsibility that comes with freedom of speech demands that personal opinion must be set aside in order to rely solely on the facts.

The benefits of equipping law enforcement officers with body cameras include protecting their honor, keeping them accountable and, one would hope, providing sufficient evidence of proper conduct during times of great stress or provocation. The men and women who don their uniform day after day should be held in the highest regard for their service to the American public.  The use of electronic “eye witnesses” could help to demonstrate that the vast majority of these people deserve our utmost gratitude, while exposing the activities of the few not worthy of their badge or our respect.

Law enforcement officers are the noblest and most courageous of public servants, willing to lay down their lives for their fellow citizens. But it is simply too much to ask that they be willing to risk not only their lives, but also their honor. If an accusation against the character of an innocent officer is made, it is the duty of every citizen and elected official to make sure that the officer’s honor is protected against the fraudulent claims of those dedicated only to the destruction of our society.  It’s a disgrace that today’s officials are willing to yield to the ranting of low-lifes who demand proof of innocence rather than evidence of guilt. If the evidence provided by body cameras will serve to silence these groups, then police departments throughout the nation should purchase them and the public should adamantly support their use.
The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. CSG is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in applied civics. The authors include administrative staff, selected students, and guest columnists. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the views of CSG. They may be contacted at

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