Police body cams: Good idea or not?

During a press briefing this past week, it was disclosed that Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa has ordered the mandatory use of body cameras for policemen conducting antidrug operations. This follows the directive of President Duterte to bring back the PNP to the government’s war on drugs.

The issue of requiring law-enforcement officers to wear body cams has become a global issue for the past few years, particularly in light of problems in the United States that apparently point to the police using excessive and unnecessary force in dealing with the public.

On first examination, it would appear that requiring police officers to wear body cams is a logical and positive step in controlling what might mildly be called “misbehavior.” Any one of us that have been involved in a minor traffic accident knows that immediately taking lots of pictures of the mishap protects our rights and keeps the story from being distorted. Thus, even requiring “dash cams” in automobiles has been discussed for some time.

In the course of normal day-to-day police operations, studies have shown mixed results that favor both using and not using police body cams. The first assumption might be that the police do not want body cams as it might show their improper actions. A study in the United Kingdom, though, showed that the use of body cams is a two-way street in dealing with the public.

The study revealed that police equipped with body-worn cameras received 93 percent fewer complaints from the public. The questions then are, were there fewer complaints because the officers wearing body cams acted more professionally or that false complaints could not be made because of the digital proof of proper police actions?

Here is where it gets interesting. The researchers found that there was no significant statistical difference between the number of complaints received by officers wearing cameras and those without, as long as the public assumed that all the officers in a district were body cam-equipped. For the police, the researchers theorized that even non-body cam officers acted better because of what was called “contagious accountability.”

However, in the US state of Washington, an 18-month study of more than 2,000 police officers found that officers equipped with cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as those who did not have them. Yet, perhaps the best conclusion came from Chief Peter Newsham of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. “I thought it would have a difference on police and civilian behavior, particularly for officers who might be more inclined to misbehave.”

But the most positive effect was that body cam usage increased the public’s trust in the police. Newsham said, “You have to be legitimate and trusted. You can’t underestimate the value these cameras bring to that.”

The relationship between the public and the PNP is absolutely one of diminished trust in light of all that has happened in the past year. For that reason alone, requiring PNP and all other officers involved in drug enforcement is crucial and an absolute necessity. Any available option for the PNP to gain the public’s trust must be taken immediately.