Like many other Americans, I watched the video of the Walter Scott shooting and can’t forget it. The extinguishing of a human life is horrifying. What’s worse is the recognition that, if not for the passerby taking a video on his cellphone, officer Slager might still be on patrol in South Carolina today. If this doesn’t stir the national conscience, it’s impossible to imagine what will.
What can be done to prevent further tragedies? The answer is exactly what the town of North Charleston is doing in response: ordering 250 body-mounted cameras for all of its police officers.
The benefits are clear: A year-long study in Rialto, California showed a reduction of the rate of use-of-force incidents of 60% and an 88% reduction in complaints. Studies have shown that complaints drop dramatically when police officers are wearing cameras, both because of police conduct and because suspects behave better when they know they’re being recorded. It’s common sense. Everyone is going to act differently if they think what they’re saying or doing can be played back in a courtroom months later.
So why aren’t officers around the country wearing cameras right now? This is more of a local governance issue than a federal one. There are 18,000 different local law enforcement agencies, from the smallest town’s to the NYPD. Each agency is subject to its own budget, leadership, and regulations. Nationally, there are thousands of decision makers each balancing different interests and budgetary constraints, making widespread adoption difficult.
It would cost approximately $400 million to equip all 1.1 million US police officers with body-worn cameras (current costs are approximately $350 apiece, not including data storage costs and maintenance).
Does that strike you as a reasonable cost? Approximately 400 to 1,000 Americans get shot and killed per year by police (the stats aren’t clearly kept, which is its own massive problem), some of which may be avoidable. Additionally, police departments receive thousands of complaints and lawsuits per year. Cameras could save many municipalities money by reducing legal costs defending against complaints, from the frivolous to the legitimate. This expense line is massive—the NYPD spent $136 million on legal settlements for complaints about police misconduct in 2010 alone. If cameras reduced this amount by any percentage they’d easily pay for themselves. The same is true for other cities around the country. Cameras would not only save lives but they’d save millions in legal costs.
Okay, you’re thinking. Cost isn’t the core issue. The real issue is that it would be difficult to generate police adoption and compliance. Very few politicians or police chiefs would want to make this stand—they’d immediately become very unpopular with law enforcement, which is a very important constituency in any city.
Officer resistance is understandable. No one wants to wear a camera to their place of work and have their words and actions judged after the fact. This is probably more true of police officers than your average office worker.
On the other hand, good cops will probably appreciate having a record of their interactions when frivolous complaints are brought against them. Police vehicles already have cameras on them so officers are used to being recorded as they drive around. Casino and hotel workers, customer service representatives, convenience store clerks, and many other jobs involve being recorded while on-duty. Police officers are given deadly weapons and the legal use of force—having them wear cameras seems very reasonable given the stakes involved.
It’s likely that if we wait for police chiefs around the country to order cameras, not all will be in a position to do so. Here’s an idea for how to create a cultural norm—start a national Race to the Top. Make it voluntary, but have Congress pay for the cameras at the federal level and give any cop who wears one a bonus (or tax break) of $500 a year.
If we made it voluntary, about 20-30% of the most upright and rule-abiding police officers would immediately start wearing cameras. When their partners and buddies give them a hard time, they’d say, “Look, it’s an extra five hundred bucks a year!” When it became clear that the footage wasn’t being used except in connection with violent incidents, more police officers would start adopting it. It would spread to other departments. Eventually, when there was an incident or complaint, the first thing a jury will ask will be, “Was the officer wearing a camera?” If not, then the standard of proof on the officer would be higher. Departments would start requiring it for officers that received multiple complaints, if only to save money. Different cities and states would adopt various policies over a decade or so. Over the years, you’d create a culture where the expectation for a police officer would be to wear a camera.
The cost of this cash incentive would be about $100 million per year, eventually moving up to $550 million per year if every officer in the country wore a camera. It’s a tiny cost relative to having a more accountable police force. It would save lives, restore the public trust, and pay for itself many times over in reduced legal costs for municipalities.
Again, you start it as a voluntary federal program with a $500 bonus for any police officer participating. Who is going to complain about that? That’s something all politicians can get behind. If you’re pro-law and order, you like it. If you’re concerned about police behavior, you like it.
We could raise private money to get the ball rolling. Start a crowdfunding campaign. Get a couple enlightened tech billionaires and hip-hop moguls to put their names on it. Mark Zuckerberg and Jay-Z together! Do a ‘buy a cop a camera’ campaign. I’d pitch in $350 to buy a cop a camera (and the costs would go down a lot at scale).
As one company that manufactures cameras puts it: “Made for cops by cops. Prove the truth.”
What happened to Walter Scott was a terrible tragedy. We can’t rely upon there being a brave bystander with a cellphone camera next time—and with the right leadership there shouldn’t be a next time.