What We Can Learn From the Police That Pioneered Body Cameras

Ever since his early days on the police force in Chesapeake, Va., Kelvin Wright has been intrigued by the idea of using cameras to fight crime. As a traffic officer in the late 1980s, he was the first cop in the department to test them on car dashboards. Chesapeake police then experimented with body-worn cameras as long ago as the late 1990s, but the technology proved impractical. By 2009, Wright was the chief. He decided to equip 90 of Chesapeake’s officers with newer-model body cameras. At the time, such recording devices were in use only in a select handful of police departments around the country.

That is quickly changing. Sparked mostly by the riots following police killings last year in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. — and, more recently, by the shooting death of an unarmed black man in North Charleston, S.C. — there’s been a national surge of interest in outfitting officers with body-worn cameras. Just two years ago, TASER International, a leading vendor of the devices, only supplied cameras to Chesapeake and a few hundred other agencies. Now the company reports more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies use more than 30,000 of its cameras nationwide. One national expert recently told The Wall Street Journal he estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 police departments, out of about 18,000 nationwide, use body cameras. No state mandates body-worn devices yet, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 29 states had introduced various body camera bills as of March.

Many of the cities interested in equipping officers with body cameras have reached out to Chesapeake to see how the program has worked there. Since the unrest of Ferguson, Wright says his department has received on average a call a week about the cameras from other cities. The New York City Police Department was one of the callers. The District of Columbia Police Department sent a contingent down to Chesapeake last year to visit. Wright thinks it’s not a matter of if but when most police departments will deploy body-worn cameras of their own. “Across this country,” Wright says, “officers will wear these very much as they do their sidearm.” Continue>>>