Last week, footage from police body cameras in two very different cases told a similar story: that body cameras are an increasingly necessary tool for transparency. But police departments still need to do more to improve transparency and accountability.
In one case, Milwaukee police officers stopped Sterling Brown, an NBA player for the Milwaukee Bucks, for a parking violation. After a verbal exchange, the officers wrestled Brown to the ground and tased him. Once footage of the incident was released, the officers involved were suspended.
In another incident, Sherita Dixon-Cole accused a Texas state trooper of sexually assaulting her during a DWI (driving while intoxicated) arrest and threatening to kill her fiancé if she told anyone about what happened. The events depicted in the officer’s body camera footage strongly contradict these claims.
The Sterling Brown incident struck a particular chord with me: my colleagues and I recently released a report summarizing findings from the Urban Institute’s evaluation of the Milwaukee Police Department’s body camera program.
We found that body cameras significantly reduced subject stops and citizen complaints but had no impact on the degree to which Milwaukee officers used force during their interactions with community members.
Our report, and other studies with similar findings, suggest that body cameras alone cannot fix long-strained police-community relationships. Despite the growing use of body cameras, some officers act inappropriately or use excessive force, while some community members lodge unnecessary or false complaints against officers who follow the law and behave professionally.
But these cases also demonstrate that this policing technology can further an important goal: improving transparency and accountability. Body cameras documented both incidents and led to the discipline or vindication of the officers involved. Still, these recent cases—and our research—emphasize three strategies for maximizing body camera transparency.
Body camera footage provides critical evidence for internal and external investigations of police conduct and offers community members a detailed, firsthand account of what happened during an encounter. It is no surprise, then, that body cameras have widespread support from both the public and police officers and appear poised to become a standard in police practice.
By following these three recommendations, police departments are primed to enhance the transparency and accountability of their body camera programs.
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