Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

New York Police Department (NYPD) Sergeant Joseph Freer demonstrates how to use and operate a body camera during a media press conference on December 3, 2014 in New York City.

New York Police Department (NYPD) Sergeant Joseph Freer demonstrates how to use and operate a body camera during a media press conference on December 3, 2014 in New York City.

Police body cameras have been around for a number of years but it was after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014 when interest in them really took off. President Obama promoted body cameras as a way to increase police transparency and accountability. Groups as disparate as police chiefs and civil libertarians see their value and many are advocating for wider adoption. But even those who support more police body cameras say implementing them in a way that gets it right is tricky — particularly when it comes to protecting people’s privacy. Guest host Tom Gjelten and his guests discuss the growing use of police body cameras.


  • Nancy La Vigne Director, the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute
  • Frank Straub Senior law enforcement project manager, Police Foundation; former chief of the Spokane, Washington Police Department
  • William Yeomans Fellow, law and government, American University's Washington College of Law
  • Jay Stanley Senior policy analyst in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program, ACLU


  • 11:06:53

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. After the deaths in police custody of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner and Sandra Bland, there's more pressure on police departments to improve the transparency of their operations in the field. One popular idea is to have police officers wear body cameras.

  • 11:07:14

    MR. TOM GJELTENHere in the studio to discuss the growing use of the camera technology and the questions it raises about privacy and police accountability, we have William Yeomans of American University's Washington College of Law, Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute and Jay Stanley of the ACLU. Good to see you. Thanks for coming in.

  • 11:07:33

    MR. WILLIAM YEOMANSGood morning, Tom.

  • 11:07:35

    GJELTENAlso we're joined on the phone by Frank Straub. He's a former chief of the Spokane, Washington, police department. He's in Battle Creek, Michigan. Hello to you, Frank.

  • 11:07:46

    MR. FRANK STRAUBGood morning.

  • 11:07:47

    GJELTENOf course, listener input is important on this topic. Please call us with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. You can email your questions to You can, of course, find us on Facebook or Twitter. Let's start with you, Bill. Was it Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, that was the real game changer on this issue of police body cameras, would you say?

  • 11:08:19

    YEOMANSWell, I certainly think it had an effect. You know, police departments have been experimenting with body cameras for over a decade now. But the intensity was really ratcheted up with the series of high profile deaths, particularly in African Americans and certainly the incidents in Ferguson were huge. But that was followed by a series of videos, the Eric Garner video. Eric Garner was actually killed before Michael Brown.

  • 11:08:51

    YEOMANSThe Eric Garner video, the Laquan McDonald video which just came out in Chicago have really demonstrated the importance of video.

  • 11:08:59

    GJELTENAnd not just by -- I mean, video of all kinds, cell phone video, dash cam video.

  • 11:09:02

    YEOMANSExactly, exactly, exactly. And so what we have in most of those incidents is we either have dash cam video or we have third party video, people with their cell phones and I think that police departments are now realizing the importance of having video on the scene, both for their protection and to insure justice in these situations. But they recognize, I think, that video does give an objective view of what's happening. It may be incomplete at times and it may be subject to interpretation, but at least we have a video.

  • 11:09:37

    YEOMANSAnd these incidents in the past have been very much sort of swearing contests between police officers and the victims, right.

  • 11:09:43

    GJELTENHe said, she said.

  • 11:09:43

    YEOMANSExactly. And so now we have a picture.

  • 11:09:45

    GJELTENYeah. Well, Frank Straub, you're a former police chief and Spokane where you were chief was one of the first departments to adopt body cameras. What's your sense, as a former police chief? Would you agree with what Bill Yeomans just said?

  • 11:09:59

    STRAUBYeah, I do very much so. We actually began the process, if you will, in 2012. We had an incident in 2006 in which a gentleman by the name of Otto Zehm was killed during a police interaction. That spurred or initiated a Spokane Use Of Force Commission and one of their recommendations in 2012 shortly before I joined the police department was that the Spokane police department purchase and equip their officers with body cameras.

  • 11:10:32

    STRAUBAnd so in 2012, we began the process of purchasing body cameras as well as a pilot program to put them out on the street and gauge what the reaction of our police officers as well as the Spokane citizens would be to them. My personal opinion, after 31 years in law enforcement, a number of those years in the inspector general and internal affairs community and having run three different public safety police agencies is body cameras are, in fact, a godsend for both the community and the police departments that serve them.

  • 11:11:07

    GJELTENAnd it's a godsend for the police officers themselves because it removes sort of what Bill Yeomans was saying before, the issue of, like, one person says one thing, somebody else says another thing. Now, the police officers have something that can back up their version of what happened. Is that right?

  • 11:11:24

    STRAUBExactly. I think it gives audio and visual proof of what happens in these incidents. But I will caution that they're not perfect, that things go on that the body camera doesn't necessarily capture. So it is a part of the story. It is a very important part of the story. It's a convincing part of the story, but you don't necessarily capture what's going on behind the officer, what the officer saw when she or he were arriving to the scene.

  • 11:11:58

    STRAUBAll that information is very important in the officer's ability to plan and execute a course of action.

  • 11:12:06

    GJELTENWell, Nancy Le Vigne, I saw a report from the police foundation that very much backs up what Frank Straub just said, which is that police body cameras are not a panacea for the problems that they're meant to address. And you're nodding your head.

  • 11:12:22

    MS. NANCY LA VIGNEYes, that's right. I was just going to interject and say another challenge with police body worn cameras is that it's up to the officer to turn the camera on or off. I think that there's a popular misperception that these cameras are running 24/7. But that's just not really feasible. I mean, officers even on the job need to have a certain amount of privacy during certain periods of time. What that means is that departments are trying to develop their own policies on when and under what circumstances they turn the cameras on.

  • 11:12:54

    MS. NANCY LA VIGNEThere's often situations where they may forget to turn their cameras on and that is actually more likely to occur right when you want the cameras in use. So if they're involved in an altercation, if they're in a high speed chase, if they're in a fight or flight kind of situation, are they going to be thinking, oh, let me turn my camera on? No. They're going to be thinking, maybe I should get my weapon out of the holster now. And so you're not capturing a lot of those images and the footage that people are most desiring through body worn cameras.

  • 11:13:27

    GJELTENFrank, did you have guidelines on when your officers should turn them on or not?

  • 11:13:31

    STRAUBYou know, we did. At the end of the day, though, we left it to officer discretion. And when I was there, we were just finishing up the pilot program. Again, as Nancy said very well, there are times, personal phone calls, you know, something as simple as trips to the bathroom, conversations in the station house that don't need to be recorded and probably, at the end of the day, shouldn't be recorded. There are also are instances where, I think, an officer has to be able to use their discretion as to whether it's really appropriate to record and incident.

  • 11:14:09

    STRAUBSomebody coming up to an officer on foot patrol and asking for directions really doesn't warrant the recording of an interaction. (unintelligible)

  • 11:14:18

    VIGNEBut you can imagine a scenario where the officer claims to have forgotten to turn the camera on so it just underscores the lack of perfection. This is not a silver bullet by any stretch.

  • 11:14:29

    YEOMANSSure. And I would just add that it's very important to have clear guidelines as to when officers should use their cameras so that we can sort of police the use of the cameras. If officers have too much unbridled discretion, that undermines the goal of transparency, which was key to the use of body cameras.

  • 11:14:49

    GJELTENYeah, Frank, I'll let you...

  • 11:14:50

    STRAUBAnd I'll agree with that. In fact, you know, when I say discretion, it was limited discretion and the officer would then have to write a report explaining why she or he did not activate the body camera in a given incident.

  • 11:15:04

    GJELTENHmm. Okay. Jay Stanley from the ACLU, I want to bring you into this conversation. I was reading your report and you have an interesting sentence her from the ACLU's perspective or from the perspective of someone who's followed what the ACLU's positions have been on a number of issues. You say "although we at the ACLU generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers."

  • 11:15:34

    GJELTENSo this is an interesting issue for you. You are at the head of the spear, the point of the spear on issues of privacy and yet, your concerns about privacy have not been sufficient for you to oppose the use of police cameras in these encounters.

  • 11:15:49

    MR. JAY STANLEYYeah, that's right. I mean, we've been very concerned about privacy. We've always, at the ACLU, represented those Americans who don't want our public spaces plastered with video surveillance cameras, especially centrally run police video cameras. But while we think that the government and police agencies should not be monitoring everybody without individualized suspicion, we think that the public does have a very crucial need to monitor its public officials. And the tricky thing about body cameras, of course, is that they do both.

  • 11:16:21

    MR. JAY STANLEYThey are police surveillance cameras operated by the police and generally under the control of police, but they also have a real potential, if they're done right, to serve as a much needed check and balance on police power. We have a very big problem of police killings and other police abuse in this country that I think many American have only really become aware of in recent years because of the amount of video that's out there.

  • 11:16:47

    GJELTENNancy, how many police body cameras are in use? We mentioned that it really took off after the shooting of Michael Brown. In Frank's case, it was a pilot program, not a, you know, not a full-fledged implemented program.

  • 11:17:02

    VIGNERight. There's been a substantial investment in this technology across the country and the most recent data suggests that about a third of police agencies have at least some share for their officers equipped with body worn cameras. But typically, that's a pretty small share. There's still really mostly in the pilot stage.

  • 11:17:19


  • 11:17:20

    STRAUBIf I can just jump in on that.

  • 11:17:22

    GJELTENVery quickly.

  • 11:17:22

    STRAUBThere's reasons for it, too. It's not as simple as just buying the camera. That's a relatively cheap proposition. The true expense and concerns come from data storage, the redaction of the information and these very large public records requests that come through where somebody says, I want all the Spokane police body camera footage for 2015.

  • 11:17:51

    GJELTENOkay. Hold that thought, Frank. Those are important issues that we're going to have to include in this discussion. That's Frank Straub. He's the senior law enforcement project manager at the police foundation and former chief of the Spokane, Washington, police department. We're talking about the use of cameras worn on the bodies of police officers. I'm Tom Gjelten. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:01

    GJELTENHello again, I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in this week for Diane Rehm. And in this hour of the Diane Rehm Show, we're talking about the growing use of cameras worn by police officers in order to record their interactions. And this -- of course the use of these body cameras has really grown in the aftermath of controversies over some very controversial killings by police officers.

  • 11:20:26

    GJELTENMy guests here in the studio are Bill Yeomans, he's a fellow in law and government at American University's Washington College of Law, also Nancy La Vigne, who is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute and Jay Stanley, who is a senior policy analyst in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program at the ACLU. And we've been joined on the phone by Frank Straub, who is the former chief of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department. And you can join our conversation. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. We'll be getting to your calls in just a bit. You can email us,

  • 11:21:04

    GJELTENAnd in fact I've already got a whole bunch of interesting emails. Jim from Florida got a $282 red-light camera ticket, and he says, I have very little sympathy for the police being resistant to having their actions recorded. If it's good enough for me, why not for them? Well actually we've heard -- we've heard that police officers aren't necessarily resistant to this, but that's an important -- he didn't get the opportunity to sort of turn that ticket down, did he?

  • 11:21:31

    GJELTENJeff in Ohio says, I'm hoping your panel can discuss the idea that the use of body cameras not only captures the interaction between police officers and the public, but it can actually change the tone of the interaction when both parties know they're being filmed. That seems like a very sensible point to make, doesn't it, Bill?

  • 11:21:49

    YEOMANSYeah, I think it's a very important point, and the early studies on the use of body cameras have suggested that there are a couple of important effects. One is that officers equipped with body cameras engage in fewer uses of force, and the other big finding is that the number of citizen complaints filed against officers using body cameras drops. Now those are not final and conclusive, but they're very strong -- there's some very strong data suggesting that.

  • 11:22:20

    YEOMANSAnd so some researchers and commentators have suggested that that demonstrates a kind of a civilizing effect so that when people know that they're being recorded, both police officers and civilians, they tend to be on their better behavior, if not their best behavior.

  • 11:22:36

    GJELTENGo ahead, Jay, Jay Stanley.

  • 11:22:38

    STANLEYI would just want to jump in here and say that it's not entirely true that police have not been resistant to being photographed at all.

  • 11:22:43


  • 11:22:44

    STANLEYWe at the ACLU have done cases all over the country where individuals using cell phones, personal cameras, recording police officers carrying out their duties in public have been arrested, harassed or worse by police officers saying, you know, sir, you need to put that camera away, which is not actually a lawful order. Courts have found that you do have a First Amendment constitutional right to photograph anything in plain view, in public. And many police officers...

  • 11:23:07

    GJELTENThat was a very important issue in South Carolina, in the shooting of that unarmed man in South Carolina, Mr. Scott I think it was.

  • 11:23:14

    STANLEYYes, it was, and I think that one of the things that happened in that case is that the individual who took the film was actually terrified to come forward because he was worried about retaliation. And when it comes to police body cameras, just as those of us in the privacy saw it have been somewhat ambiguous, ambivalent about the issue, I think a lot of police officers have been ambivalent about the issue, and there has been resistance within the ranks, to some extent.

  • 11:23:40

    STANLEYIt's police management that does embrace the technology pretty wholeheartedly.

  • 11:23:44

    GJELTENGo ahead, Nancy.

  • 11:23:44

    VIGNEThat's true, although in one agency we've been working with on an evaluation, we really expected to see more resistance, and what we learned is once the officers started using the cameras, the word spread that this is actually a good thing, and then they started demanding, wait, why don't I have a camera, so...

  • 11:24:01

    GJELTENDid you, in that study, did you do any investigation into how often police officers turned them on or didn't turn them on?

  • 11:24:08

    VIGNERight, we're in the midst of studying that right now, and what we're interested in seeing is whether there's any relationship between how long the cameras are on and how frequently they're used and other measures, like use of force and, you know, frequency of arrest and so forth, with the theory being that perhaps those are less inclined to use the cameras are engaging in more unlawful activities.

  • 11:24:31

    GJELTENFrank Straub, I think we're curious about your experience in Spokane. You're representing a department that actually did use police body cameras, has used police body cameras. First Jay mentioned a point that a lot of officers will scold somebody or even order somebody who's using a cell phone to record a transaction to -- an interaction to stop it. I'm curious about your reaction to that and also about how much resistance you found among your patrol officers in using body cams.

  • 11:25:01

    STRAUBSo I think that historically, before really body cameras started to become in vogue, there was a sense among police officers that their interactions with citizens shouldn't be recorded. And so we see, and we saw even in Spokane, some instances where police officers did instruct individuals to turn off their cells phones. In some cases across the country, their -- those instructions turned into negative physical interactions between police officers and civilians.

  • 11:25:39

    STRAUBThat being said, though, when we did a survey of our officers who were wearing body cameras, 92 percent of those officers said that they would no longer leave the station without a body camera, and that, in talking to other departments, Post Falls, Idaho, for example, a smaller department but a department that had deployed body cameras to all their officers before we did, that was the statement, that we won't leave without our body camera, and the body camera for those officers became as important as their firearm, their collapsible baton and other pieces of equipment.

  • 11:26:18

    STRAUBThey wanted that ability to record their interactions. I think one of the things we see is that it is still relatively new technology, and it is still a training issue, and so one of the things that we recognized in Spokane, it was a training issue for our officers, but it was also a training issue for the community. And so we did 160 community presentations of various sizes where we hand-delivered, in addition to a PowerPoint, our policies and procedures with the hope and the expectation that the community would give us feedback on the policies and procedures, and in fact we did change our policies and procedures based on that feedback.

  • 11:27:01

    STRAUBWe also painstakingly explained the technology, the positives, as well as the limitations, and we allowed members of the community to actually wear the body cameras and go through some scenarios so that they would be fully cognizant of what was going on with the cameras. We talked about redaction issues and so on and so forth.

  • 11:27:18

    GJELTENBill, Frank earlier mentioned the issue of public access to the video footage that is recorded on body cameras, and probably the most famous issue in this regard, and I think you mentioned it earlier, is Laquan McDonald in Chicago, where the police withheld the video of that shooting for more than a year. And of course that raises the question, raises the question that is actually in an email from Brian. He says, I see police departments acting strategically in releasing body camera footage when there is controversy about an incident. The footage is quickly released if it advances the department's position but withheld in other instances. Usually the reason for withholding the footage is something vague, like it's part of an ongoing investigation. To me, release should be the norm when there is a dispute. This is one of those issues that is going to have to be worked out, isn't it?

  • 11:28:10

    YEOMANSYeah, this is a very important issue, and it's an issue, I think, that needs to be worked out by institutions beyond the police themselves. And so this is something that political legislative bodies should take up. And we've actually just been through what was I think a very positive experience here in the District of Columbia, where the city council authorized funds to equip every police officer in D.C. with a camera but conditioned that on rules about public release of the video.

  • 11:28:42

    YEOMANSAnd what they came up with was, and this was over the objection of the mayor and the police department, was a very broad requirement of release under the existing Freedom of Information Act, with some exceptions for video taken inside the home or video in sex assault or domestic violence cases. So I think that, you know, these issues of public release are key, and they're being addressed by an increasing number of legislatures around the country. But there are an awful lot of legislatures that just haven't gotten into the act yet and need to.

  • 11:29:15

    GJELTENWell Nancy, the Urban Institute, and under your direction, has done quite an impressive survey of what sort of rules and policies are being established in states around the country. What did you find?

  • 11:29:25

    VIGNERight, well, when it comes to public records disclosure, we found that there's considerable variation from state to state on the underlying statutes. You know, these fall under Freedom of Information Act types of statutes that apply to all manner of public records. But in the case of body-worn camera footage, that indeed is a public record. Some states are quite expansive or permissive in sharing public records or demanding that they be shared. Washington state is one of them. You know, others have a lot of exceptions for law enforcement, and there's much in between.

  • 11:30:03

    VIGNEThe issue here is not as simple as all these records should be shared, and that's because of what gets captured on body-worn camera footage, okay. I think that there is this misperception. I mean, a lot of people want the footage when it comes to the citizen who is shot and killed, who was unarmed. I mean, that's the picture that people have in their minds when it comes to using body-worn cameras and demanding to see the footage.

  • 11:30:31


  • 11:30:32

    VIGNEBut so much of this footage is day-to-day interactions that involve people, perpetrators but people who are innocent until proven guilty. So should their image be shared with the public at that juncture? Witnesses, victims, children. And, you know, should those records be shared? Arguably not unless they're redacted, but the redaction process is incredibly time-consuming and very expensive.

  • 11:30:57

    VIGNEI mean, Chief Lanier was quoted as saying...

  • 11:30:59

    GJELTENHere in Washington.

  • 11:31:00

    VIGNEHere in Washington, D.C., that it takes 17 hours to redact four minutes of footage. So in D.C., yes, that law was to demand that the footage be shared, but there was also a component of it that said subject to redaction, and they've developed, created a fund to resource the cost involved with that redaction.

  • 11:31:23

    GJELTENJay Stanley, we're talking about some really tough policy and regulatory issues here. And I'm sure that the ACLU is spending a lot of time figuring out, you know, what positions to take here, right?

  • 11:31:33

    STANLEYYeah, I mean, we are a privacy organization, but we are also a government transparency organization. So what do you do with all this body camera video? And the reason -- of course police want, and prosecutors want, body camera video to collect evidence. But the reason that body cameras have been as broadly supported as they have is because they also serve an oversight function. That's the reason that President Obama called for $10 million to be contributed to body cameras. That's the reason the ACLU, that's the reason that many Black Lives Matter activists have supported body cameras.

  • 11:32:05

    STANLEYAnd yet if none of the footage is released, if the police departments have complete over the footage, they won't be fulfilling that goal of providing oversight over police. They'll just become just another surveillance tool. At the same time, as Nancy said, a lot of the footage that's captured by this is very, very private. Police see people at the worst moments of their lives. They're inside people's homes and so forth. And so you have to hit the right balance.

  • 11:32:31

    STANLEYWe've thought about this very, very carefully, and our view is that by default, the footage should not be publicly releasable except if there is, A, a use of force, or B, a felony arrest, or C, a complaint against a police officer.

  • 11:32:46

    GJELTENJay Stanley is senior policy analyst in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program at the ACLU. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is the Diane Rehm Show. Frank Straub, you wanted to jump in, and I'm curious you, you know, one of the things you said was very important to underscore, and I think I heard you correctly. You're saying that more than 90 percent of your officers felt that they wanted to go out with a body camera after having participated in this pilot project. Have there -- are there some stories that you can share about times when having body camera footage of an interaction really helped a police officer, you know, that perhaps involved in a controversial interaction?

  • 11:33:33

    STRAUBYeah, I want to comment two ways on that. First I want to react directly to my colleague at the ACLU. While I agree those three criteria are very important, I also think it is incredibly important that the public see the tremendous work being done by women and men in uniform every single day, and body cameras capture that interaction. I can't tell you how many times, literally, my officers in Spokane talked people off the ledge of a bridge, and I think seeing that interaction is an incredibly powerful thing because the majority of police calls today still are calls for service, are still calls for assistance, and I think we have to keep this debate in perspective and show the good, as well as the bad, to the community.

  • 11:34:23

    STRAUBOne story that does come up, and I think it shows an awful lot, we had an officer respond to a situation where a woman literally walked through the front door of her neighbor's house, told them that they had an hour to leave the house because they were being evicted because they were aliens. And so those neighbors called the police. And one of my officers showed up. The woman in fact had a warrant for her arrest that was outstanding previous to this incident, and on the body cam was captured about 20 minutes of interaction between this police officer and this woman, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis, right.

  • 11:35:11

    STRAUBShe truly believed that her neighbors were werewolves and aliens. And it was powerful because it showed how good his de-escalation skills were and how he was able to in fact arrest her, take her into custody. He did ultimately transport her to the hospital, versus a jail, which is an important thing. But the officer at the end of the thing said something incredibly important. We protect health records through HIPAA.

  • 11:35:45

    STRAUBNow you have a woman who's in mental health crisis, and that interaction is captured on video footage that theoretically will never be destroyed. It also went viral. It was all over the Internet. And so now this woman, who once she gets back on medication, is stabilized again, that story is out there. Every job interview she goes on, that story is out there. Her family has to live with that story. And so that's the danger. We capture incredibly good things, we capture incredibly bad things, and we really expose the community, I think, to some serious intrusions of privacy in the course of police officers doing their business.

  • 11:36:31

    GJELTENJay Stanley, I'm sure that resonates. You're, you know, listening to that carefully, aren't you?

  • 11:36:35

    STANLEYYeah. I think that's exactly what we're worried about in terms of the privacy, and the privacy of the person who's standing on that ledge that is saved heroically by a police officer is also a consideration. And it's important that this not become merely a tool for, you know, police propaganda, yay, look at our great officers, but then when officers are not so heroic, the video is hidden.

  • 11:36:59

    STANLEYAnd I think it's -- you know, police departments are bureaucracies, and naturally they want to keep control of information, although I will say that despite the variety of policies that are out there in state laws, the smart police chiefs know that when there's a controversial thing, when there is a shooting, when the community is getting upset, that the smart move is to release the video footage, whether you're required to or not.

  • 11:37:19

    GJELTENJay Stanley is a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. We heard earlier from Frank Straub, who is the former chief of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department. We're also joined here by Nancy La Vigne from the Urban Institute and Bill Yeomans. We're going to take a short break. We have a lot of listeners that want to weigh in on this discussion, and we're going to go to your calls as soon as we get back. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.

  • 11:40:01

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the use of body cameras by police officers with Bill Yeomans, who is a fellow at law and government at American University's Washington College of Law. Also, Nancy La Vigne from the Urban Institute, Jay Stanley from the ACLU and on the phone, Frank Straub, a former chief of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department. He's also the senior law enforcement project manager at the Police Foundation.

  • 11:40:28

    GJELTENI want to go now to Nick, who is on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio. One of many callers that wants to weigh in on this discussion. Hello, Nick. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:40:38

    NICKHi. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:40:38

    GJELTENYou bet.

  • 11:40:40

    NICKSo, quickly, here in Cincinnati there -- the police chief and the mayor have expressed support in developing a body cam program. And they've expressed interest in doing that. However, they specifically addressed it by saying due to budget constraints there isn't -- the other priorities have to take precedence. And I understand that, you know, from their perspective. You absolutely need to keep officers safe.

  • 11:41:06

    NICKAnd so they've prioritized upgrading other technology, replacing vehicles that could be potentially unsafe and things like that. So I guess my question would be when there is both public and governmental support for a body cam program how can either the public or elected officials identify funding sources to get that off the ground, if it is indeed something that the federal government is looking to support and the nation, as a whole, is looking to support.

  • 11:41:34

    GJELTENWell, Chief Straub, you said that the costs weren't that -- but you argue the costs weren't that high, although, you know, we know that some big departments, New York City for example, has not done this because -- and they do cite the cost of adopting a lot of body cameras.

  • 11:41:50

    STRAUBRight. So the cost of actually purchasing a camera is relatively inexpensive. So to give you an idea, we bought 220 body-worn cameras and three years of cloud-based data storage. And that cost us $750,000.

  • 11:42:07

    GJELTENOkay. Out of how much of a -- how much was your budget, if we can ask?

  • 11:42:12

    STRAUBThat was the budget for the cameras. The problem becomes -- is the cost of redaction. And Nancy spoke to that when she talked about the D.C. experience, in terms of the number of hours that it takes a person to go through the video footage. So we average three hours a person time for every hour of video footage. So you can imagine what the human expense is in terms of an individual sitting there reviewing the footage.

  • 11:42:42

    STRAUBThe second piece is we have a three-year contract with our vendor. What happens at the end of the three years? Now, they own three years' worth of data on their cloud application. We, at this point, don't know what it's gonna cost us to continue or would cost the Spokane Police Department to continue that relationship, in terms of data storage. So it's the hidden costs that generally drive concerns about the body camera program. It's not the purchase. It's that evidence storage and it's the redaction costs that drive the concerns that you hear from many public officials.

  • 11:43:24

    GJELTENAnd Bill Yeomans, how -- to what extent are these cost concerns going to limit the adoption of body-worn cameras from here on in the future?

  • 11:43:31

    YEOMANSWell, obviously it's a concern. And as Chief Straub said, it's a continuing concern because the expense goes on and on, the data storage is always going to be expensive, although costs will come down. But I want to point out that the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration announced after Ferguson that it was putting $75 million into the purchase and operation of body cameras around the country. And so grants are going out from the Department of Justice now. And I think they, last summer, announced about $20 million in the first round of grants. So there is some money out there.

  • 11:44:05

    GJELTENAnd they're gonna -- they're actually going to help the Ferguson Police Department to implement body cameras, aren't they?

  • 11:44:12

    YEOMANSThey are. And, although, Ferguson's score card at this point is -- doesn't look very good. But…

  • 11:44:18

    STANLEYAnd one consideration here that some police chiefs are calculating is that if these body cameras can save them a couple of use-of-force lawsuits, which can cost tens of millions of dollars…

  • 11:44:28


  • 11:44:29

    STANLEY…that can considerably improve the calculus, just financially.

  • 11:44:32

    GJELTENI mean, that's an interesting question. Can police departments -- do they pay insurance against these lawsuits? And if they adopt body cameras do they get better insurance rates? They should.

  • 11:44:43

    STRAUBI don't know whether they get better insurance rates, but certainly it would be a consideration, you know, risk management.

  • 11:44:50

    GJELTENSure. Let's go now to Jeff, who's on the line from Connecticut. Hello, Jeff. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:44:54

    JEFFHi. Yeah, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. Good morning. The question that I wanted to address is that of the discretion of the officer. Maybe the gentleman from Spokane can speak to this. When a call goes out to a radio patrol car that says you're responding to a domestic violence call or something that could escalate or could be violent, could they be told to turn on their camera at that moment?

  • 11:45:17

    GJELTENBy the dispatcher?

  • 11:45:19

    JEFFBy the dispatcher. And could they say no? That's kind of the first question. And the second one is -- and this makes perfect sense. If they come upon an active armed robbery, they're not going to thinking to turn on their body camera, but it seems to me if they unholster weapon or their stun gun, that the Bluetooth technology would exist to turn on that camera at that moment.

  • 11:45:40

    GJELTENNancy, you're raising your hand.

  • 11:45:41

    VIGNEYeah, no, I…

  • 11:45:43

    GJELTENInteresting questions here.

  • 11:45:43

    VIGNEThese are really good questions. Departmental policies vary a lot in terms of at what point does one turn on the camera. Some do say that your camera should be turned on at the point of dispatch. Others say when you initiate contact with a citizen. But to the caller's point, there's a lot of untapped technology out there that I think could be really promising and useful in this context.

  • 11:46:06

    GJELTENCould this Bluetooth -- could Bluetooth technology be used in the way that he's referred to?

  • 11:46:09

    VIGNEYeah, absolutely. Yes. You could have -- when the weapon leaves the holster. But you could also use biometrics. You could have something around the wrist that detects an elevated pulse rate. Or, you know, sweat excreted from the skin…

  • 11:46:24


  • 11:46:24

    VIGNE…that would suggest a kind of fight or flight mode. And, you know, why not turn the camera on in that context?

  • 11:46:29

    GJELTENDo you have any thoughts on that, Chief Straub?

  • 11:46:32

    STRAUBNo, I would agree. I think -- we encouraged our officers at the point of dispatch to activate their cameras, so that they would have a running account of everything that happened from the time they were dispatched to the time they arrived to the scene to the time they took action. And that goes back to my earlier comments about being able to tell as much of the complete story as possible, with the audio and video. What was your -- what things were informing the officer's decision-making process prior to and upon their arrival to an incident? And so that I think that's incredibly important. Go ahead, Nancy.

  • 11:47:08

    VIGNEYeah. Just a little thing to add. A lot of people don't realize that the footage is rolling, it's buffering for about 20 or 30 seconds before the officer turns the camera on. Now, it's only video. It's not audio. But that's a very precious piece of information there that might be mined. It's something that we're going to be doing at the Urban Institute, is researching to understand what's transpiring during those 20 or 30 seconds that might lead an officer to make the decision to turn the camera on.

  • 11:47:36

    GJELTENJay, there's one more privacy issue that we should nail down here. This is from Acidus, who wrote an email. I'm not sure we have discussed this in detail yet. "What if citizens don't want to be video and audio-taped for privacy reasons? Do they have a right to ask officers to turn their audio and video recording devices off before they engage in a conversation with the officers?"

  • 11:47:59

    STANLEYGenerally, they do not. Those departments that have chosen to deploy body cameras give pretty, I mean, typically give fairly strict instructions as to when the officers are expected to record. And the fact that a citizen in public says I don't want to be recorded, doesn't really play into it. We have called for departments to adopt a policy where if an officer is going into a home that they ask permission to continue recording inside the home because that is a, you know, obviously a very private space that people expect to have not displayed on YouTube.

  • 11:48:36

    STANLEYThe exception would be in a SWAT raid. We have seen so many abuses during SWAT raids that we think that police should be required to record during SWAT raids. But generally, you know, what we're looking for is for, as I -- as we -- as I said earlier, most of the video footage should really go into a lockbox and not be publicly released. That takes care of a lot of the redaction expenses and it takes care of the privacy issues. The footage is not released unless there's a use of force or a felony arrest or there's been a complaint against the police officer.

  • 11:49:03

    GJELTENFrank, you want to weigh in on this question of whether citizens can ask not to be recorded?

  • 11:49:08

    STRAUBYeah, absolutely. So, as I mentioned, we did 160 community meetings. During one of those meetings I made the statement -- and at the time it was our policy that we would not record in an individual's home. And this woman raised her hand and said, okay. So you come to my house on a domestic violence call. My husband meets you at the door or my significant other meets you at the door and says, Officers, turn off your body camera.

  • 11:49:32

    STRAUBMeanwhile, I'm standing behind him beaten to a pulp, waving to get your attention, and I'm begging you to record every single interaction you have with my husband, as well as the physical injuries to me because that's invaluable evidence against my husband. And it also becomes very important because we see so often in domestic violence and sexual cases where victims recant their stories because of fear or the need to keep their relationships going for economic reasons.

  • 11:50:00

    STRAUBThat footage is incredibly valuable. And so the attorney general of the State of Washington confirmed my decision, which was if we go, we announce, we start recording and we keep recording until we leave.

  • 11:50:14


  • 11:50:14

    STRAUBAnd the attorney general in the State of Washington affirmed my decision.

  • 11:50:18

    GJELTENThis is such a complicated issue, isn't it, Nancy?

  • 11:50:20

    VIGNEIt truly is, yeah.

  • 11:50:22

    GJELTENI want to go to Miranda now, who's on the line in Cleveland, Ohio. Hello, Miranda.

  • 11:50:26

    MIRANDAHi, there. I'm a retired federal law enforcement officer. I was the assistant chief of investigations in the Coast Guard for the port that I was stationed in. And this is before the advent of small camera technology. But at the time we implemented internally a policy for ourselves that we called, kind of colloquially, the Mike Wallace Rule. And it went something like this.

  • 11:50:55

    MIRANDAYou know, if we were out doing a boarding or we were out doing a law enforcement operation or some sort of prosecution or any kind of interaction with the public, if we stepped off the dock or if we were out in the middle of a boarding and a boat approached us and in some case, in any case Mike Wallace and news crew, you know, from "60 Minutes," were there and they stuck a microphone in our face and hit us with the lights and said, what the heck are you doing here, Officer.

  • 11:51:18

    MIRANDAIf we couldn't give a good explanation as to what we were doing and why we were doing it, then maybe we ought to rethink it because we always want to be doing the right thing and doing it in the right way. And our observation was that -- and always has been that people generally act better, generally behave better when there's other witnesses, especially when they think they're being recorded. And I think…

  • 11:51:42

    GJELTENSure, yeah. Well, that's a really interesting point. And the idea being that police officers, like other law enforcement officers, should always assume that what they're doing is being witnessed or should be witnessed and that they wouldn't do anything differently otherwise. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Jay, you wanted to jump in?

  • 11:52:05

    STANLEYYeah, I think that gets to sort of the duality of these cameras. I mean, we do act differently when we know we're being watched, when we're being recorded. This is why we don't want to have pervasive surveillance throughout American life. And I'm somewhat sympathetic with police officers who don't want to be recorded all the time. Nobody wants to be recorded all the time. It's stifling, it can be oppressive, but when it comes to police officers they have such tremendous powers that we as a society give them.

  • 11:52:30

    STANLEYWe give them the power to arrest, which is a significant power. It can really mess people's lives up. And we give them the power in some circumstances to use deadly force. And unfortunately there's been so much abuse of these that we think that this is an area where, you know, that sort of surveillance is needed.

  • 11:52:47

    GJELTENBill, there's one other issue that I want to make sure that we cover in this discussion. And that's the legal implications of -- the legal use of this footage. You know, we had -- the -- both the Eric Garner case in New York, that was filmed by a bystander, the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland was caught on -- that confrontation was caught on camera. And in neither case did those lead -- did that footage lead to an indictment. What is the -- what are the implications of the widespread use of video capturing these interactions for legal prosecutions?

  • 11:53:23

    YEOMANSWell, obviously, it's enormously important. As we've said, the video doesn't always capture the entire interaction. So the video becomes one very important piece of evidence. And frequently, in police use of forces cases it's an indispensable piece of evidence. And so, you know, the use of video has helped awaken the country to some police abuses. And it seems almost -- it seems very difficult to go forward without video in many instances.

  • 11:53:54

    YEOMANSSo going back to the Rodney King case in the early 1990s…

  • 11:53:58


  • 11:53:59

    YEOMANS…you'll recall there was a video of that very severe beating by the Los Angeles Police Department. And there was a conviction in that case only because there was a video. And I think ever since then we've recognized both the power and the limits of video. Video is subject to interpretation. It doesn't capture the whole scope of what's happening, but it does capture what's happening in front of the camera. And that's very informative for law enforcement and for juries.

  • 11:54:23

    GJELTENAnd has there been any trend, as far as what juries and judges -- how they see video footage? Are they inclined to take it more seriously than they may have in the beginning or…

  • 11:54:35

    YEOMANSWell, I think people generally in our society have become more sophisticated about video. I think they understand the limits of video more than we used to. But it is really hard to deny the fact that something is happening in front of you on a screen. And it can be explained and there can be lots of evidence about what else is going on, but the video remains powerful.

  • 11:54:54

    GJELTENLet's go for our last phone call to Ann Arbor, Mich. Herman is on the line. Hello, Herman. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:55:02

    HERMANYes, thank you very much. I just wanted to agree with the person on the lockbox theory. I think that is not -- there is no reason to reveal that information unless charges are brought against the police. So there's no reason for the cost that he was referring to. I think he's just using that as a red herring. Also, in the use of police force. I've -- there's a lot of anecdotal information out there already regarding that. And that is -- the show "Cops," it used to be a favorite show of mine.

  • 11:55:37

    HERMANI watched it for a long period of time, until I noticed a trend in the handling of the suspects. Black men were absolutely treated the worst, when it came to police interaction, than white men, than African-American women and finally white women were treated with the most gentle interaction. So I think there's already a lot of information if people, you know, who are familiar with that show watch it over a period of time. You can see that.

  • 11:56:12

    GJELTENWell, you know, you're not the only one to raise the issue of the "Cops" program, Herman. Actually, we had an email from Rodney, who pointed that out earlier. Now, I assume that, you know, as someone who works in the broadcast industry we can assume that, you know, that that footage was chosen for entertainment value as much as for anything else. But it's interesting that you raise that. It shows that the widespread importance of video.

  • 11:56:39

    GJELTENAnd we don't have really any time left, Chief Straub. But I do want to correct what Herman said there. He said that you used the lockbox argument as a red herring, but we should emphasize to our listeners that you have been actually an advocate of the use of police body cameras and presided over the Spokane, Washington, Police Department at a time when you implemented a very important pilot project in the use of body-worn cameras by police officers. It's a really important issue. And we have learned today how complicated it is, how many conflicting policy and regulatory issues it raises.

  • 11:57:19

    GJELTENIt's one that's gonna be around for a long time. I'd like to thank our guests, Bill Yeomans from American University, Nancy La Vigne from the Urban Institute, Jay Stanley from the ACLU and Frank Straub, former chief of police on the Washington Police Department. We've had a lot of phone calls. Thanks to our listeners. I'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."

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