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Body Cameras For Police Officers Aren't A Panacea

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yesterday, President Obama proposed spending $263 million on training and new equipment for local police, including $75 million in grants for the purchase of new body cameras. Now, many of the Ferguson protesters have called for universal adoption of the devices as a means to increase police accountability. And some law enforcement officials believe the devices also protect police.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been reporting on the expansion of body cams for the last couple of years and he joins us now. And, Martin, first explain how the cameras work and, more importantly, how they're different from dash cams, which are common in police cars.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, they're pointed at the public. They're worn on the body, either on the chest or on your glasses, and they're always rolling, like a black box in an airplane. They're constantly recording and then they just keep overwriting that data until an interaction with the public starts. Then the officer touches a button and they start to save the video and they're supposed to keep saving video until the officer touches the button again at the end of the interaction. At the end of his or her shift, the officer hooks it into some kind of a portal and that video is saved into a database or a cloud service.

CORNISH: And some police departments have used these cameras for the last couple of years. Have they been shown to improve their relationship with the public?

KASTE: It's something of a mixed record. The proponents of these cameras point to Rialto, California - one of the early adopters. In 2012, when they first started using these cameras, they say the complaints against their officers fell by 88 percent. So there's a sense here that it keeps everybody honest - the police officer, but the public too, so you don't get unfounded complaints.

But in other places, like New Orleans, which is a troubled department and the federal government has been looking over their shoulders, they bought cameras for all of their patrol officers earlier this spring. But when I spent some time there with the independent monitor who keeps tabs on complaints - public's complaints - against the officers, that monitor kept running into the problem of missing video. They would find that there was no video made or there was a technical problem and that tended to happen in situations where the officers were under suspicion of doing something wrong.

CORNISH: Generally, what have you heard from police officers about this technology?

KASTE: Well, police tend to like the cameras, especially when they're controlling the camera. Even when departments don't buy the system, some officers either buy their own version of this or they'll just use their phone to record interactions. There's this amazing video on YouTube - a recent encounter between this black man who was stopped by a white officer in Michigan. The man was holding his own phone videotaping the officer and the officer did the same. He reaches into his coat and he pulls out his iPhone.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I'm just checking on you.

BRANDON MCKEAN: Wow.

POLICE OFFICER: You say you're fine. You're good.

MCKEAN: That's fine. I mean, I'm just - I just make sure I had to get this on camera to make sure...

POLICE OFFICER: Me too.

MCKEAN: Yep, for sure.

CORNISH: But, Martin, in that case, that's video uploaded to YouTube, right? That's not going to be the case with these body cam videos that police departments will be holding.

KASTE: And that's a big problem - a big area of tension. The whole question of who controls the videos created by these police officers is very contentious. Public accountability advocates will say that in the past the police have been very good at keeping videos that incriminate police from making it into the public sphere. And there are also very legitimate privacy concerns. If an officer walks into your home during a domestic abuse call, or something like that, with the video camera rolling you yourself may have some qualms about that becoming a public document and showing up on the evening news.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thanks so much for explaining it to us.

KASTE: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.