The killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, brought police accountability back into the national dialogue, prompting President Barack Obama to ask Congress for $75 million to provide 50,000 body cameras to police departments nationwide.
According to a recent Morning Consult poll, the overwhelming majority of registered voters want to see on-duty cops wearing those cameras. Eighty-two percent of respondents said police officers should wear the devices, and overall support for increased transparency was strong across demographic and party lines.
Camera use is favored by 76 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats. For white and Hispanic voters, 81 percent want police wearing body cameras. The highest level of support came from black respondents, at 89 percent.
Morning Consult surveyed 1,385 registered voters nationwide from Dec. 6 through Dec. 9. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
The broad support for body cameras in the Morning Consult poll doesn’t surprise Lindsay Miller, a senior research associate with the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises law enforcement agencies nationwide on police practices.
“This is one issue where we see support from all sides: law enforcement agencies, groups like the ACLU and communities,” Miller said in an interview.
But the cameras are not an immediate and infallible solution, and some police leaders want clarification on how they’ll be used. Some law enforcement officials have said that filming every single interaction with civilians could cause officers to lose tips and jeopardize some insider relationships in the community.
“With community policing, one part of that is informal relationships,” said Miller, who co-authored a report on implementing body cameras. “Those are good relationships. We don’t want cameras to have a chilling effect on that.”
She recommends using the devices only when officers are dealing with suspects.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while body cameras are “not a silver bullet,” the technology will help increase transparency. He said in an interview that the footage gathered by police officers should only be made public if the incident is flagged for use of force or by a civilian complaint.
Body cameras have been demonstrated to reduce civilian complaints and use of force. A yearlong study conducted by Cambridge University in 2012 found that body cameras worn by police in Rialto, California – a town with about 100,000 residents – reduced civilian complaints by 87.5 percent and use of police force by 59 percent compared with a year earlier. A similar study published by Arizona State University this year found a 47 percent reduction in civilian complaints and a 75 percent decline in police force during a 10-month period in Mesa, Arizona.
The $75 million requested by the White House is part of a $263 million package sought by the Obama administration to increase police training over the next three years. Congress has not acted on the request.