Wash U Expert: Police body cameras can be effective if used properly

But complex racial issues can't be solved with gadgets, Richards says

As part of the White House response to unrest in Ferguson, Mo., President Barack Obama has proposed $263 million for police body camers and training.


While body cameras can be effective, they only work if the police leave them on and make sure recordings are not deleted, says a privacy expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Properly deployed, police body cameras can be a useful tool in deterring police abuse,” said Neil M. Richards, JD, professor of law and internationally recognized expert on privacy and information law.

“But solving the complex policing problems we’ve seen in Ferguson and other cities this year isn’t as simple as throwing money at the problem for technological gadgets.”

After all, Richards said, it was federal grants of military hardware to police that have contributed greatly to the over-escalation of physical force by police in the first place.

“Body cameras are more appropriate expenditures than tanks and sniper rifles, but they will only be helpful if the police don’t turn them off, don’t delete their records, don’t play to the cameras or use them selectively,” he said.

“We saw the St. Louis police effectively and selectively use surveillance video of Michael Brown to spin the narrative this fall, and body cameras give them even more opportunities to nudge public debate in pro-police and even pro-authoritarian directions.

“There’s also the difficult question of when suspects or the media can have access to the records,” Richards said.

“Unfortunately, complex social problems of racial inequality and militarized policing are rarely the kind that can be solved with gadgets, whether they are bean-bag shotguns, mine-proof vehicles, scary black uniforms or body cameras,” Richards said.

“More important is remedying underlying injustices and changing the culture of policing to make it less militarized and less adversarial,” he said.

Click here for more of Richard’s views on police body cameras from a Sept. 2, 2014 CNN.com op-ed piece.