iSpy: Can Body Cameras Stop (and Spot) Crime?

Niki Casady

NewsStories of murder and gunfire are always on most news anchor’s teleprompters. The events that seem the most scandalous and sensational are when there has been an abuse of power—namely when police shoot, seemingly, without provocation. However, the use of body cameras might put an end to these murky, adrenaline-filled police encounters.

Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychological study conducted on male college students, showed just how corrupting the illusion of power can be. Zimbardo and his colleagues randomly chose from a pool of 24 men and made half of them prisoners in the college basement and the other half guards.

They all knew that no one had committed a crime and that none of them had any training to be a guard. At first no one took it seriously, but as the hours ticked by, the guards began making the prisoners act out sexual fantasies, denied them their clothes and the use of the bathroom if they misbehaved and continued to escalate their abuse until one prisoner had a mental breakdown only 36 hours into the experiment. Zimbardo found that the 12 men who were assigned a position of power in the experiment fit into one of three categories.

“First,” he wrote on the Stanford Prison Experiment website, “there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were ‘good guys’ who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior.”

While this was just one experiment with a pool which could be said to be too small to be accurate, a real world event seemed to corroborate these findings.

In 2003, photos were released showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Dr. Craig Haney, social psychologist and one of the developers of the Stanford Prison Experiment, commented that the photos from Abu Ghraib were familiar. He said in a documentary, “The photographs were strikingly familiar to the photographs that we had taken—many of the photographs that I had taken in the prison experiment.”

One of the pretend guards in this college experiment also experienced a sense of déjà vu of a prison he had never visited, saying that “[he] had been there before.” He commented that their abuse didn’t go as far as the real guards did, but “given enough time, I could have got there.”
Both the real and pretend guards were normal people, but under the right circumstances, they turned happily malicious. Therefore, when it is reported that a police officer shot an unarmed man, it’s an automatic response to jump to the worst conclusion: the officer was a mad man, drunk with power.

However, Zimbardo’s experiment found that 66% of the guards were not particularly malevolent. Police departments all across the country are implementing the use of body cameras to keep the public safe from the 33%, and also to keep the officers safe from the public.
Capt. Joe Rucinski of the UMKC Police offered feedback about their one-year experience with body cameras. His office was warmed with photos of his family and airplane memorabilia.

“That picture is of my plane,” Capt. Rucinski said, with a note of pride in his voice. “Well, not my plane, but one just like it.”
This pride was evident all through the interview when he discussed UMKC’s Police Department. He worked for the Jackson County department for five, has spent 11 years at UMKC and has embraced this new technology. The battery pack and memory of the device sits in his pocket and the small camera clips to the front of his shirt.

The devices can only store eight hours of video. They have a red light on the visible part to let the public know that it is recording and the battery pack vibrates so the officer can’t be recorded without his or her knowledge. Because of the limitations of data storage, UMKC officers have been trained to activate the cameras on the way to a call for service.

“With some of the events in the media, it’s pretty obvious that most law enforcement feel that the best practice for the future of transparency is body camera systems,” Rucinski said when asked why UMKC’s department decided to add the cameras.

He mentioned the past method of filming, video car systems, and how as soon as the officer steps away from the car, no one can know for sure what happens. Some officers have taken advantage of that in the past and scenes of violence happening just off the dashboard camera have appeared on televisions for decades.

Although, with a lack of evidence, sometimes the officer is blamed even when it the situation isn’t clear. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is one example of this. The media ran with what would sell best, some evidence was obscured, and now, very few Americans really know what happened. The New York Times published “What Happened in Ferguson,” an article which contains six maps, five photos of evidence, a court document, a bar graph and a detailed timeline, yet most already have the true story imprinted in their minds.

The benefit of body cameras is they provide more evidence when tensions are running high. Capt. Rucinski agrees.

“It really takes out the ‘he said, she said’ portion of the incident,” Rucinski said. “For instance, like any police department, we receive complaints about an officer not acting professional, and before body cameras, you basically had the word of the complainant and the word of the officer. And there really was no other evidence.”

Rucinski said that, off the top of his head, he could think of at least two cases like this in the last six months where this happened. However, after reviewing the body camera footage, they were able to determine that the officer did not violate policy.

When asked if the benefits of having the body cameras outweighed the negative Big-Brother aspect, Captain Rucinski said he didn’t see any negatives, but he sees how it could inevitably be a problem.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “you would have had that issue. But now that everybody has a camera, you are going to be filmed one way or another. My personal opinion is that, with the body camera, you have the opportunity to record the entire incident. As a commander, my main concern of video taped evidence by civilians is recording the whole story. You can easily see cell phone footage in the media, but you don’t know what happened thirty seconds before the recording. That could be crucial to the investigation.”
This thirty seconds could show if an officer was provoked or not and could save the university money by preventing lawsuits. Even if the only evidence is “he said” vs. “she said,” the university’s image will be damaged no matter what really happened. At only $800 per camera system, this could be a win-win for universities. The school saves money, and face, on lawsuits and provides more safety for its officers and students.
This said, there is a bigger problem when paying for the body cameras: the price of storing all the data. While it is public information and can be viewed upon request, it still needs to be secured safely. We are all used to taking as many photos and videos as we want in this digital age. However, even an average user knows that storing these files is not easy, and terabyte hard drives are becoming standard. This storage issue is what keeps most larger departments from adopting body cameras as some departments have thousands of officers.
All things considered, body cameras may not be the savior that some believe it to be. On July 19, University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shot Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. There is speculation as to whether this was a senseless murder or if there was more to the story. Officer Tensing was wearing an active body camera during the encounter and the Prosecuting Attorney released the video online.
It is apparent that the officer did all the right things by asking for DuBose’s license and asking him to step out of the car. Instead, DuBose started his car and raced off. The camera showed what happened, but it still didn’t explain why.