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Should Every Police Officer be Outfitted With a Body Camera?

Lawmakers have argued the benefits of cops wearing body cameras in the wake of Michael Brown's death, but the practice also has obstacles.
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His hands were up. His hands weren’t up. Darren Wilson was being aggressive. Michael Brown was being combative.

The St. Louis prosecutor’s office released highly varied witness accounts of the final moments of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s life after a grand jury Monday announced its decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot him. The Aug. 9 death renewed calls from lawmakers to outfit police with body cameras, and Brown’s family also called for the cameras on Monday after Wilson was not indicted.

"Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera," the family said in a statement Monday. Police officers in Ferguson began wearing body cameras after Brown was killed; the devices were donated by two private security firms.

And following Brown’s death, Missouri Rep. Courtney Curtis penned a letter to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and other officials urging her to "require St. Louis County, City and Ferguson police officers to wear cameras and record any interaction with the public at all times."

Curtis told NBC News that he is fighting for cops to wear body cameras in order to hold them accountable. Witnesses, he said, would also be more careful about their testimonies if they knew those accounts could be verified or discredited. A body camera recording "would have provided so much more information in the Ferguson case, and we could have possibly had a different outcome and not the additional distrust in the system," Curtis said.

Cleveland Councilman Zack Reed said the same benefits would have applied to the police shooting of a 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, last week. The Cleveland City Council in October approved a $1.6 million contract to buy cameras for 200 officers, Reed told NBC News. And in the wake of Tamir’s death, Reed admonished the council for "dragging their feet" and not prioritizing the purchase of the cameras. That shooting was captured on surveillance video that police made public Wednesday.

Reed said the cameras wouldn't only encourage police officers to act lawfully, but also show the public that the majority of police officers are doing "their job properly every single day."

A body camera would have shed additional light on the shooting of Tamir, who police said reached for a pellet gun that looked real. Even if the police officer who shot him was "in the right," Reed said a firsthand video recording of the incident would have provided "the opportunity to have a teaching moment." Reviewing a tape might help police determine, "maybe we can do something different," which might just "save the next 12-year-old," Reed said.

A report released by The Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in September supported that body cameras on police officers do, in fact, increase transparency from police and witnesses and as a result, reduced complaints of force used by officers.

The report cited a study done at the Rialto, California, police department, which randomly assigned body cameras to cops over the course of a year. The department found that citizen complaints dropped by 88 percent during the year of the study, compared with the previous year. Use-of-force complaints were 60 percent lower against the group who wore body cameras, according to the study. A study in Mesa, Arizona, had similar results.

Both studies noted that both officers’ and citizens’ behavior was altered when they were aware of the cameras. "You’ll be amazed at how people stop acting badly when you say 'this is a camera,' even if they’re intoxicated," said one officer who participated in the Mesa study.

The Community Oriented Policing Services report also outlined potential issues with body cameras, and outlined procedures that must be considered within departments before a pilot program is launched.

"Giving cameras to everybody is just a mistake," Chuck Wexler, the executive director of COPS, told NBC News. "I think you have to approach this systematically and address the issues that will inevitably come up."

The most pressing hurdle is adhering to privacy rights, followed closely by funding, according to the report.

Because courts have not yet established guidelines on incidents recorded by body cameras, officers have to consider where and when they have consent to record. The American Civil Liberties Union advises that officers should record all interactions with the public "so when a situation does go south, there’s an unimpeachable record of it — good, bad, ugly, all of it."

But the Police Executive Research Forum "believes that requiring officers to record every encounter with the public would sometimes undermine community members’ privacy rights and damage important police-community relationships," according to the DOJ report.

Police departments that equip any of their officers with body cameras need make sure "there’s a clear understanding of when people are going to be taped," by both the police force and the community to avoid this breakdown of trust, Wexler said.

“Giving cameras to everybody is just a mistake.”

Departments will also have to implement concrete guidelines of how footage will be stored, and for how long, which presents a separate problem — cost.

While most body cameras will set a department back $800 to $1,200, the DOJ report said that the real financial burden stems from storage of the videos. "Storing videos over the long term is an ongoing, extreme cost that agencies have to anticipate," said Captain Thomas Roberts of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which is participating in a pilot body camera program.

Those costs could be offset by fewer losses due to lawsuits, but the initial investment can be impossible for some departments to secure.

Curtis said St. Louis is looking to fund body cameras with public safety taxes, federal grants and a portion of ticketing fees.

Money should not be a deterrent, Curtis said, adding that the unrest and disruption that has broken out in Ferguson has proven that "the cost of public trust is priceless."