Deadly police encounters are rising. How much do body-worn cameras help?

National News

Police body cameras can play a key role in trials, like the ones worn by officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. Those videos, and bystander cellphone footage, helped lead to Derek Chauvin’s conviction for Floyd’s murder.

The most recent study on body camera usage in 2016 found that nearly half of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. had them. Yet deadly encounters have continued to rise, with Black people most likely to be killed by police.

CBS News’ Jeff Pegues spoke to officers about body cameras, and whether they think the recordings improve policing.

Dallas police officers Terrence Hopkins and Mary Lavender have been on the force a combined 56 years and are leaders in the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas.

“We represent the change in law enforcement,” Hopkins said. “We first acknowledge that there are some problems and that we need to move forward with, you know, positive solutions, not just the same old historic ‘We’re the police and this is the way it is,’ that’s not good. So we are for change and in a positive manner.”

Among the changes they spoke about was the push in recent years for police-worn body cameras — Lavender believes that in 2021, they are a good idea.

“Body-worn cameras have saved a lot of officers’ jobs,” she said.

Hopkins added that it could work “both ways.”

“It can protect you and save you if you’re doing your job the right way. But guess what? If you’re doing your job the wrong way, it could also be the end of you. And it should be,” he said.

Across the country, body camera videos have kept the focus on police tactics, like an incident in 2019 where a 66-year-old woman was dragged out of her car by her hair when she did not immediately stop for police who claim she was speeding. Also in 2019, police body cam shed light on the death of Elijah McClain, who was walking back from the convenience store when he was forcefully detained.

“They do know they’re being watched and yet we still see the bad behavior,” Wake Forest University Law Professor Kami Chavis said.

Chavis, an expert on police-worn body cameras, says they are “not the only solution to police reform.”

“Really addressing police violence in our country is going to come down to addressing police culture,” Chavis said. “Who do we hire? What are we asking them to do? And what is their relationship with the community?”

A study published in the Journal of Science found that a diverse police force can help improve how officers interact with civilians. The study found Hispanic and Black officers made far fewer stops and arrests and used force less than White officers, especially against Black civilians.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Andrew Walsh claims his organization was among the first large groups to have body-worn cameras.

In 2017, the department participated in a study that found body cameras save departments thousands of dollars per officer each year by helping them investigate complaints faster. It also reduced complaints overall from civilians, and reduced use-of-force reports. 

“The cameras obviously give us the ability to hold people accountable for their behavior. But they also give us the ability to find things that we can do to not just correct behavior, but improve our training,” Walsh said.

Both Officers Hopkins and Lavender know body cameras are just one part of the policing equation. 

“We hire our people from the same place, everybody else, the human race. And there’s bound to be some guys in there that’s doing it wrong,” Hopkins said.

In situations like that, he said, an officer has to be able to “professionally intervene.”

“For a long time there has been that history of, ‘Well, you don’t correct a good senior officer, field training officer, and I’m a rookie.’ You know, you kept your mouth shut,” Hopkins said. “We don’t agree with that. We disagree with it. And we’re taking programs, training programs to help us make sure that changes in the culture.”

Lavender added that “sometimes change is needed.”

“Change is good, so I don’t have a problem with reform, it needs to be defined a little bit better so the public understands what that means,” Lavender said. “But like I said, change is good for everybody.”

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