Nebraska police departments weigh pros and cons of body cameras

Some Nebraska police departments are undergoing pilot programs to test officer use of body cameras. (Photo courtesy of Taser)
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December 11, 2014 - 6:45am

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer recently announced the Omaha Police Department’s intention to purchase between 30 to 50 body cameras by early 2015. The decision follows a 30-day pilot program the department took part in earlier this year. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Bellevue Police Department are also currently conducting their own pilot programs with the cameras. NET News sat down with University of Nebraska Omaha Criminal Justice Professor Emeritus Sam Walker to discuss the implications of equipping police officers with the cameras, locally and nationally.  


NET NEWS:  We’re hearing about some of the police departments in Nebraska and the rest of the country who are either trying this equipment out through some form of pilot program, or have ultimately decided to incorporate these cameras into department policy. What has some of the research shown us about the effectiveness of this equipment?

PROFESSOR EMERITUS SAM WALKER:  The research indicates that it has a ‘civilizing’ effect. That’s the phrase that some reports have used. Citizens know that their conduct is being recorded and they don’t challenge officers in ways that they might otherwise have. Police officers know that their conduct is being recorded and so their conduct is better. Of course, if they’re getting fewer challenges to their authority, they don’t have to respond accordingly. The results all seem to be very, very positive.

NET NEWS:  What sort of reservations or issues have you heard from those who are maybe reluctant or even against the widespread use of this technology?

PROFESSOR EMERITUS WALKER:  There are some privacy issues. Now, there are a lot of things that we don’t really want to be recorded. So if an officer interviews a crime victim- someone who’s in the throes of a trauma, especially a sexual assault victim.  Maybe you have the family members of a victim who was shot and killed. We don’t want that and we don’t need it. So (consider) turning the cameras off for those situations. The big issue is officers turning them on when they’re supposed to turn them on. One of the studies that’s about to come out- I’ve seen an advance copy of it- there was a fairly high rate, a disturbing rate, of officers not turning on the cameras when they’re supposed to. That kind of compliance is the major issue. I think we’re going to resolve that problem. There’s almost a self-correcting mechanism in the whole process.

NET NEWS:  Let’s talk about that self-correcting mechanism. How do/will departments typically manage accountability?

Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research interests lie in civil liberties, policing, and criminal justice policy. He's authored 14 books on the subjects. (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska Omaha)

PROFESSOR EMERITUS WALKER: I believe it was two weeks ago, an Albuquerque officer was fired for not having turned on his camera and there was a very bad incident, so there was no record when there should’ve been- no video record of the incident. If police departments will enforce their policies, it’s going to take care of this problem. Now, I said ‘self-correcting mechanism.’ Let’s say there’s an encounter out there and the officer acts badly or the person thinks the officer acts badly, and files a complaint. The department then finds out ‘whoops,’ the officer did not turn on the camera. The department has grounds for disciplinary actions. So, if they will act in that way in those situations, pretty sure officers are going to be complying at a pretty high rate.

NET NEWS:  What about the cost or financial burden these departments might incur by equipping these cameras?

PROFESSOR EMERITUS WALKER:  One of the issues with body cameras involves the cost. It turns out that the cameras are relatively inexpensive and the prices have been crashing as the market grows for them. The expenses are with the data storage- downloading and saving that data, keeping it secure. That’s where the expenses are. It’s an expensive proposition. The cameras are a one-time purpose. Data storage is a 365 day-a-year proposition. There are some issues on who has access to those videos. Who in the police department? There’s potential for abuse, and that’s another issue we’re going to have to deal with. I’m optimistic though that we can take care of those.

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