Should cops wear cameras?

New York mayor Bill de Blasio: "It's going to improve the work of law enforcement."

Story highlights

  • Some believe police should wear video cameras to document interactions with suspects
  • The idea has gained traction since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri
  • Cameras could provide evidence for prosecutions, but some officers don't like the extra scrutiny

(CNN)Should police officers wear cameras to document their activities while on duty?

The notion has been around for a while. But since August's fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- for which witness accounts varied widely -- it's gained traction to become part of the national conversation about police conduct.
The idea is that a video camera mounted on an officer's vest or uniform would provide an accurate, objective account of every encounter with a civilian. Ideally, the camera would discourage police misconduct while protecting officers against unfounded civil complaints of brutality or corruption.
Some police associations support the idea, and even the Obama administration is backing it.
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Since August, more than 150,000 people have signed a petition on the White House's website urging that all state, county and local police be required to wear a camera. In response, Deputy Assistant to the President Roy L. Austin Jr. expressed support for the proposal while saying the Department of Justice is researching the best way to implement video technology into daily policing.
As Austin noted, a 2013 report by the Department of Justice found that "both officers and civilians acted in a more positive manner when they were aware that a camera was present."
Of course, body cameras create some thorny privacy issues, such as whether police need consent to videotape activities on private property. Some officers also view the cameras as unwanted scrutiny and a sign that their supervisors don't trust them.
And the fact that a witness used a phone camera to record New York police arresting Eric Garner in July didn't prevent the injuries that led to Garner's death a short time later, nor did the footage lead to indictments for the officers involved.
Still, among the police departments that have experimented with officer-worn cameras, early results have been encouraging. A 2013 study found that public complaints against police officers in Rialto, California, plunged after the city's 54 frontline officers began wearing video cameras. Use of force by Rialto officers also declined in the months after the cameras were introduced.
Other police departments across the U.S. are also now testing body cameras. Amid protests following the lack of indictments in the Garner case, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December that his police department was accelerating efforts to equip all its officers with body cameras as well.
"When something happens, to have a video record of it from the police officer's perspective, it's going to help in many, many ways," de Blasio said.
"It's going to improve the work of law enforcement. And God forbid, when something goes wrong, we're going to have a clear understanding of what happened and whatever approaches we need to take as a result."