08.27.14

Rep. Schiff Urges Department of Justice to Fund Body-Worn Cameras for Local Police Departments

Los Angeles, CA –Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) announced that he is circulating a letter to his colleagues which will be sent to Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Department of Justice to help fund local police departments’ purchase of small body-worn cameras in order to increase transparency, decrease tensions between police and community members, and create a record of events. 

Schiff, who is a member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, stated: “As the investigation into the death of Michael Brown illustrates, the circumstances of an officer-involved shooting can arouse the strongest passions in a community and breed an atmosphere of profound distrust.  Having a video record of events not only deters the use of excessive force, but it also helps dispute or demonstrate claims of police brutality – in either case it improves community confidence in a just result.  Studies done in localities that have implemented body-worn cameras have shown a positive impact by demonstrating a commitment to transparency and accountability and helping to deescalate potentially tense interactions.

"Given the Department of Justice’s crucial role in helping state and local law enforcement adopt best practices, I believe it’s time to expand our support to include assistance to law enforcement agencies that would like to adopt body-worn camera technology for their police officers. The Department of Justice can use existing funding streams, or work with Congress to create a new pool of resources for local governments to help implement body-worn cameras for police officers throughout the country.”

From the letter: “Police departments around the country have begun adopting small body-worn cameras for police officers on patrol. These cameras provide a visual and audio record of interactions with the public, so that in the event of a confrontation or police-involved shooting, such as the one that occurred in Ferguson, there is an inalterable record of the events. There are also indications that the presence of body cameras has a civilizing effect on both police officers and the public, resulting in lower incidences of excessive force complaints and deescalating tense situations before they become violent.  Perhaps most importantly, cameras can instill greater trust in police departments on the part of the public they are sworn to protect. In communities with frayed police-community relations, cameras demonstrate a commitment on the part of the local police department to transparency and accountability, while protecting officers from false or frivolous complaints. For all these reasons, the adoption of body cameras has been well received in the jurisdictions that have begun to use them, both by the public and the officers wearing the cameras.”

The full letter is below:

Dear Attorney General Holder:

We urge you to make available federal assistance for state and local law enforcement agencies to purchase body-worn cameras for police officers. The evidence from early adopters is highly promising, and body-worn cameras have garnered support from police chiefs, rank and file officers, community organizations, and civil rights advocates.  We believe that a dedicated federal grant program would be a worthy addition to the support the Department of Justice has historically provided to state and local law enforcement agencies.

We appreciate the crucial role of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in supporting and guiding the activities of local law enforcement. In Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown, the Community Relations Service and the Office of Community Oriented Policing have provided invaluable guidance to state and local authorities, as they do for communities around the country. We believe the federal government has an important role to play in supporting state and local agencies in improving police-community relations.

Police departments around the country have begun adopting small body-worn cameras for police officers on patrol. These cameras provide a visual and audio record of interactions with the public, so that in the event of a confrontation or police-involved shooting, such as the one that occurred in Ferguson, there is an inalterable record of the events. There are also indications that the presence of body cameras has a civilizing effect on both police officers and the public, resulting in lower incidences of excessive force complaints and deescalating tense situations before they become violent.

Perhaps most importantly, cameras can instill greater trust in police departments on the part of the public they are sworn to protect. In communities with frayed police-community relations, cameras demonstrate a commitment on the part of the local police department to transparency and accountability, while protecting officers from false or frivolous complaints. For all these reasons, the adoption of body cameras has been well received in the jurisdictions that have begun to use them, both by the public and the officers wearing the cameras.

Though more study is needed, early returns on the benefits of cameras show real promise in improving police interactions with the public. A study conducted by the Rialto, California police department from 2012 to 2013 showed the potential of cameras. With half of the police department wearing cameras recording each interaction with the public, the department experienced an 88 percent reduction in complaints against officers. Additionally, the study found that shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use of force incidents as shifts using the cameras. Other studies conducted in Mesa, Arizona and in the United Kingdom have also yielded promising results.

A major barrier to adoption of cameras for many departments is budgetary concerns, both for the purchase of the cameras as well as the technical infrastructure needed to maintain them and store recorded footage. A variety of Department of Justice programs provide equipment and financial support to local law enforcement agencies. We believe it would be appropriate to set aside a portion of federal assistance to state and local law enforcement to support state and local law enforcement agencies that choose to adopt body cameras for their officers. In doing so, the Department could also support rigorous study on the effects of camera adoption by police agencies as well help to develop and disseminate best practices for their use. These recommendations are in line with those suggested by a 2014 report by the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center which recommended additional research into the effects of police worn body cameras.

We urge you to explore the extent to which existing federal funding streams for local law enforcement can be used to acquire body cameras and to consider dedicating funding for this purpose. Should the Department require additional authorization or Congressional support, we are prepared to work with you through the upcoming budgetary and appropriations process to ensure proper support for such a proposal.

We ask that you provide a response regarding the Department’s views on the adoption of body cameras by police officers, as well as an update on any plans to support their greater deployment nationwide. Thank you for your service and leadership on this and other important law enforcement issues.

Sincerely,