In July 2014, Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police officers became the first of several high-profile cases that have resulted in growing public frustration with community policing, leading to riots, protests, and a demand for greater police accountability.
Later that year, President Barack Obama announced the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program, a three-year, $75-million initiative that could help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for U.S. law enforcement agencies. Now in its second year, money from the program funds training, technical assistance, camera hardware, and evaluation tools to study best practices.
Although agencies have been using body-worn cameras long before recent controversies, they now, more than ever, serve as an important evidentiary tool that enables independent review of actual events surrounding police behavior.
Their popularity has also led states to pass laws governing their use. Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently signed legislation that lets departments decide whether to release video to the public. If a member of the public makes a request for body camera footage and is denied, he or she can appeal the department’s decision to a judge. Police agencies would then have to justify why that footage should be kept private.
As states and police agencies grapple with how to best use body cameras, SPEA IUPUI faculty are also driving the discussion in Indiana. Assistant Professor Jeremy Carter is working with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) on a body camera pilot program, while Associate Professor Crystal Garcia is part of an Indiana University committee examining the use of body-worn cameras for IU campus police departments. Both professors – who come from different research backgrounds – are determined to provide evidence to guide body camera adoption, policies, and effectiveness.
Cost, privacy, and repercussions
Carter wasn’t always interested in criminal justice technologies.
A policing expert, Carter’s research focused on intelligence-led law enforcement and homeland
security. That changed when Carter and Eric Grommon, an assistant professor at SPEA IUPUI, became principal investigators of a portfolio of technology evaluation projects funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The initial project in the portfolio was to evaluate the use of a wireless broadband technology to improve police operations – a project that spurred Carter’s interest in police technology and body-worn cameras.
As the adoption of body-worn cameras began to gain momentum among police agencies nationwide, Carter believed the IMPD was soon to follow. He contacted the IMPD and
began to develop a plan to partner together in an effort to bring body-worn cameras to Indianapolis and conduct an original research evaluation.
Carter’s interest in body-camera research and IMPD’s desire to adopt the technology resulted in two collaborative funding proposals. The first proposal, submitted in May 2015, involved a Smart Policing Initiative grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and sought $750,000 to conduct a two-year project that would outfit approximately 450 IMPD officers with body-worn cameras. The second proposal included a body-worn camera implementation pilot program from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and sought a $500,000 grant in addition to matched funds from IMPD to conduct a similar study.
Although Carter’s proposals were denied, his partnership with IMPD developed, and the progress made in examining body cameras in Indianapolis resulted in IMPD receiving money from the city to fund roughly 200 body-worn cameras.
While the city moves to implement the cameras, Carter said it’s important for agencies to write clear, comprehensive policies before the technology is fully deployed. Both agencies and communities also need to clearly understand the potential benefits and consequences associated with body-worn cameras.
“From a policing prospective, you need to capture and be aware of what the police perceive are the issues,” Carter said. “From my experience of talking with police officers nationwide, the concern with body-worn cameras isn’t, ‘Will I use force or not?’ Police will use force when it is necessary. The primary concern is the repercussions of whether the camera fails or if police officers forget to turn it on. And those repercussions can be serious.”
Between May 2013 and September 2014, the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department disciplined officers nearly two dozen times for failing to activate body-worn cameras – including one termination and several suspensions.
“To avoid possible repercussions, some companies have created built-in technology where you leave the car and the camera automatically turns on. So even though there can be built-in safeguards, it’s still not perfect,” Carter said, adding that the cameras create a number of administrative, legal, and policy concerns for police agencies. In an effort to comply with the state’s Access to Public Records Act, police agencies are required to visually redact the faces of minors and victims.
Carter plans to continue working with IMPD on strategies to effectively use the cameras on a daily basis and then to evaluate the impact, specifically looking at whether the number of complaints against officers decrease.
“If police officers are likely to use force and the camera they’re wearing mitigates their behavior, I think that’s a gain,” he said.
Bringing cameras to campus
Crystal Garcia spends the first two weeks of every class each semester introducing her students to the concept of implicit bias and how these biases impact how people interact with one another and their environment.
She requires her students to take the Implicit Association Test to measure their unconscious beliefs and opinions on subjects such as race, age, religion, and skin-tone. She also asks that students keep journals to record their own implicit biases or their observations of them in the world.
“You can’t talk about criminal justice without talking about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and all the other factors that influence people’s thinking,” Garcia said.
“It wasn’t until I started talking about the mechanisms of society that can lead to certain behaviors that my students started to really understand police-community relations.”
It was this approach to teaching and research that led to Garcia’s involvement in a university-wide committee that is examining the possible use of body-worn cameras in IU police departments on all seven campuses.
In December 2014 – around the same time President Obama announced his pilot program –Garcia began working with the committee as a principal investigator on the research sub-committee to test how students, faculty and staff feel about body-worn cameras on campus.
The 15-member committee includes police chiefs and officers, experts in privacy law and public safety, and even includes an IUPUI student. Beth Cate, a clinical associate professor at SPEA Bloomington, serves as the co-chair of the committee.
Although the committee didn’t receive a budget for the research, the members conducted an electronic survey sent to all IU faculty and staff. Garcia also decided that the research team should conduct focus groups consisting of community members, students, and IU police on the IU Northwest, IU Bloomington, and IUPUI campuses.
The key groups included the IU police officers who wore the body-worn cameras for a certain period while going about their daily job requirements and those that had not tried using the technology to learn their attitudes and opinions about the devices. Garcia ensured those groups were free to talk without their supervisors present.
“The IU officers were very open,” she said. “They showed a lot of appreciation toward having their opinion heard before a policy was made, and I think that was very telling for IU. It’s rare to see a large institution asking folks what they think before a policy is implemented.”
So far, the committee has completed 13 focus groups, with the plan of conducting more before the research is published.
“Given that the biggest issues with police use-of-force has been with communities of color, I wanted to oversample with student minority groups and make sure we got a variety of opinions and voices in the room,” Garcia said.
Still, Garcia sees awareness of individual implicit biases as the most important factor in breaking down barriers between police and certain communities. That’s why she has her own students – many of whom are likely to become police officers – understand their own implicit biases.
“Body-worn cameras are just one tool, and they’re not going to make anything better if we don’t address the bigger cultural issues,” she said. “People often say police don’t understand
communities of color, but very often those communities of color don’t necessarily understand the role of police. All they do know is personal history and what’s happened in their communities.”
Policy body cameras: ongoing national debate
Forty-nine states, all but New Hampshire, exempt police from public records requests to protect active investigations, public safety or national security. Most states (42) have legislation that restricts recordings where privacy is expected.
Police agencies and states have several factors to consider – cost, privacy, and training – before they can begin using bodyworn cameras as one way of responding to the tension between police officers and citizens. Luckily, Carter and Garcia are able to provide the kind of objective, thoughtful analysis that a complex tool like body-worn cameras needs.
“I don’t know yet what the research will say,” Garcia said of IU’s body-worn camera evaluation. “I do think that what is most exciting for me and what has bubbled up among the committee and the focus groups is this want and need for continued dialogue on campus before bad things do happen. People really want to make sure everybody feels included, acknowledged and heard.”
This story originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the SPEA Alumni Magazine.