In the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri incident, police interactions with the public have come under increased media scrutiny, and the debate over police body cameras has been placed in the spotlight. Many police departments see great benefits associated with the cameras, while others hesitate for varying reasons. As this issue is debated in the Pennsylvania legislature and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey pushes to launch a pilot program of body cameras on city police by the end of the year, it becomes more and more important for everyone to know the legality of body cameras, as well as the pros and cons of their use. The following are the key arguments for and against the use of body cameras here in Philadelphia:

Top Five Pros of Police Body Cameras

  • Body cameras reduce police use-of-force incidents and complaints about use of force by officers. When police know that they are being watched, they are more likely to use restraint with people and respect the rights of citizens. In cities where these cameras are already being used, there is a significant reduction in reports of police abuse and excessive force.
  • Any incidents of potential abuse can be verified and guilty officers can be held accountable. These cases often hinge on a police officer’s testimony of their eyewitness account without the presentation of any real, physical evidence. This unfairly disadvantages average citizens in Philadelphia and criminal defendants. When video evidence is available, there will, in all likelihood, be a better account of what really happened.
  • Body cameras can record valuable evidence for a trial. In the chaos of a crime scene, police officers arriving on the scene may miss important evidence that is otherwise lost as time passes. When there is a video record of what officers saw, key evidence may be saved.
  • Witness testimony is recorded correctly. Sometimes witnesses at the scene of a crime may give information that police write down incorrectly, hurting the justice process. By recording these interviews, less mistakes can be made. Plus, police get a record from witnesses when the information is fresh in their minds; they are less likely to have not forgotten key facts.
  • Video evidence is very useful in court. Both the prosecution and the defense will have access to the video evidence. This means that it can be used in court to support the story constructed by counsel. Generally, juries find video evidence very helpful, and it goes over well.

Top Five Cons of Police Body Cameras

  • Installing and maintaining quality cameras will be extremely costly. As government budgets are feeling the squeeze everywhere, it is hard to justify the added cost of these cameras to some constituents. Philadelphia has about 6,600 officers. to the estimated cost to equip each officer in the city with a body camera would total at least $5 million dollars in the first year alone.
  • There are still many legal questions about privacy issues associated with the use of body cameras. These privacy issues are still unclear both towards the officers themselves and anyone unwittingly filmed on a police body camera. It is not clear whether or not officers can film a residence or private property without a warrant, for example. These unresolved issues could open departments up to a lawsuit or violate a citizen’s rights.
  • Video footage still would not be without bias, although it would most likely be perceived as such. Officers could turn off cameras at any time in order to intentionally obscure or omit facts. On the other hand, not filming something could unfairly prejudice a jury towards assuming wrongdoing.
  • Victims may feel intimidated by the cameras. Victims of certain crimes, especially sexual assaults, for example, may not want to be filmed recounting what happened to them. Body cameras could unfairly hurt these victims.
  • Body camera footage would become public record, raising ethical questions about the filming of certain events. For example, if a person is killed on film, the family of the victim may be unfairly hurt by those images becoming public record. Already many departments with police body cameras have experienced complaints about certain images being released to the public.

Before you form your own opinion on whether police body cameras would be a good thing in our city, it is important to consider the above points. It is clear that policymakers will have a lot to think about before deciding the issue. If the pilot program begins as planned here in Philadelphia, it is important to make sure that all of these pros and cons are considered by police commissioner and other decision makers when developing the policies that will govern the use of such devices.

If you have been charged with an offense in the greater Philadelphia metro area, you’re not alone – we can help. At Fienman Defense, we help to minimize our clients’ legal troubles and the consequences they face. Contact us today at (215) 839-9529 for a free consultation with Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer Michael Fienman.

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