Police, Body Cameras and Broadcast News

SPRINGFIELD, VA. ― In the past two weeks, Michael Brown went from being an unknown teen to being the most talked-about citizen in the country. Sadly, he had to die first, and the circumstances of his death have polarized the country sharply ― it's hard to remember anything as highly charged and massively covered since the riots of the 1960s.

Technology that was unthinkable in the 1960s is now commonplace today. Michael Brown was seen on convenience store surveillance video just minutes before his lifeless body was photographed by someone with a cellphone, but what exactly occurred between those two instants in time is unknown and subject to great speculation. It doesn't have to be that way, however.

Police departments around the country are experimenting with body-worn cameras that will quietly record everything an officer sees and says. If the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., had one of these inexpensive cameras, the past two weeks of angst would probably have gone quite differently. We would know, without speculation, exactly what happened to cause the death of an unarmed young man at the hands of a police officer.

Officials around the country are starting to stir with thoughts on the possibility of police body cameras.

"It seems to me that before we give federal funds to police departments, we ought to mandate that they have body cams," said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

McCaskill said that police are often assumed to be acting too aggressively in shootings such as this, often because citizens with cell phone cameras record the aftermath but don't get the full encounter. This leaves the police officer holding a smoking gun and a suspicious public wondering what just happened.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "It gives the impression the police officer has overreacted when they haven't," McCaskill said. "If the police officer has a small body cam, then not only is the community reassured that someone is not being treated unfairly, it protects that police officer from being accused of treating someone unfairly."

Missouri is, after all, the "Show Me" state.

Sensing a big news story, broadcasters around the world flocked to Ferguson. Seasoned television journalists then had to cover a story about what happened without really knowing what happened, leading to speculation that skewed one way or another depending on the organization's (or the reporter's) philosophical leaning. Body camera video, quickly handed over to news organizations, would eliminate such speculation immediately.

Body cameras are inexpensive, weigh just a couple of ounces, and can provide reasonably clear video/audio all shift long on a single microSD card. (Did you realize that you can get a 64 GB microSD card the size of your pinkie fingernail for less than $50?) One such camera heavily marketed to police departments is the Taser Axon, which has a list price of $400.

Taser Axon body camera Of course, the video collected has to be processed, logged saved, archived and made available for Freedom of Information requests, and that takes equipment and manpower. Taxpayers have to expect to support those operations.

However, in the case of the police in Ferguson, Mo., and Michael Brown, it would mean that we would know exactly what happened. We would either be telling a police officer who did difficult duty that he did the right thing, or we would be quickly locking him up and misplacing the key. As it is, news organizations speculate endlessly and show police over-reaction that focuses more suspicion on police. I understand that, as those pictures are too hard to resist for any journalist ― but do they really tell the story accurately?

There are many ways to analyze the news coverage from Ferguson, but video from a body camera would have sliced through each of our preconceived notions of who did what to whom. More than speculating on what might have happened during a few undocumented minutes, news organizations should be lobbying for body cameras to eliminate the speculation.

Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."