The Encyclopedia online edition defines police discretion as “The right and opportunity to act according to their discretion in stopping people, arresting them and using force to bring about an arrest. Discretion means the power and ability to make decisions.”
I spoke to an old partner recently and we discussed the amount of police discretion we were able to exercise. We talked about the discretion used with good and bad people whom we encountered daily. Countless working officers use it to get respect from a suspect by giving them a break.
Other officers (like me) used discretion to obtain information AND get respect. We simply cannot lock up everyone whom we encounter! Officers who get respect from the street also get information.
The average civilian, politician and legislator have no idea the amount of discretion officers exercised until … body cameras came along.
In this new world of policing, the use of police discretion is gone. Ask any cop, there is no discretion at all: Zip – Natta – None. For years, police officers were given the power by law to act with discretion when stopping people, arresting them and using force to bring about an arrest.
Officers were able to use their discretion give leeway (freedom) to many of those they encountered. Used properly, that discretion truly impacted people in the communities they served.
When I was in the academy, instructors talked to the recruits about using their “police discretion” with individuals to ensure that we had a less stressful day. Example: An officer on the beat sees “Johnny” drinking in the park. The old way of policing would have been to tell Johnny to take a walk.
Now, because of cameras, Johnny gets a citation. Johnny doesn’t pay the ticket which results in more fines and a possible warrant. The same goes for a person driving on a suspended license.
I’ve talked to countless officers who just won’t jeopardize their career over something caught on camera. I’ve talked to numerous officers who are fearful of giving a break to a citizen for a minor offense only for it to backfire on them.
WHY IS DISCRETION ALLOWED, ANYWAY?
The idea behind police discretion is this: laws should be flexible in some ways in order to guarantee that individuals are treated justly and fairly. NOT ANYMORE. Gone are the days of giving a citizen a break to get respect or information in return.
One of the most important areas where police have discretion is in deciding whom to stop for a driving infraction. Most citizens commit some kind of driving violation during the course of their day. Often, it is something small like failing to maintain a lane during a turn. Most people go a few miles per hour over the speed limit.
It is impossible to arrest every single person who happens to break the motor-vehicle law. It is also not advisable for officers to do so. This means they must decide whether the person breaking the law is posing a threat to public safety.
Previously, officers exercised a great deal of discretion. For instance, a person who is drunk in public will now be arrested because of the body camera. In the past, an officer might choose to ask the person to walk it off, take the bus or grab a cab.
Likewise, discretion must be used in determining how much force is needed to bring an uncooperative suspect into compliance
BODY-WORN CAMERAS ARE RISKING PUBLIC SAFETY
From ProCon.org below are three significant explanations why Police body cameras decrease the safety of police officers and negatively affect their physical and mental health.
- Some people respond negatively – even violently – to being filmed by police, especially people who may be drunk, on drugs, or suffering from mental health problems.
A study published in the European Journal of Criminology found that assaults on police officers were 14% higher when body cameras were in use.
University of Oklahoma Professor of Law Stephen E. Henderson, JD, says that the use of police body cameras can be psychologically damaging to police officers as “nobody does well under constant surveillance.”
Pat Lynch, head of the NYPD’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), says that, “There is simply no need to equip patrol officers with body cameras. Our members are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods [gas masks], Mace, flashlights, memo books, ASPs [batons], radios, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it.”
A report by the UK Home Office noted potential health and safety issues with the use of body-worn cameras including head or neck injuries, electric shock from damaged equipment, and radio failure if cameras and radios were used in close proximity to each other.
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- Police body cameras invade the privacy of citizens, expose victims and witnesses of crimes and damage police-public relationships.
Recording police-public encounters can lead to the public exposure of private medical conditions, victims of crimes such as rape or domestic abuse, witnesses who fear reprisal from criminals, and informants – especially in states which have laws allowing public access to the footage.
Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub notes that, “Every day we are exposing persons challenged by mental illness, autism, developmental disabilities, addiction, etc. We are creating and making public recordings of their illness and potentially creating life-long consequences.”
Chief of Police Ken Miller of Greensboro, North Carolina says that if citizens, “… think that they are going to be recorded every time they talk to an officer, regardless of the context, it is going to damage openness and create barriers to important relationships.”
A study in Edmonton, Canada, found that potential witnesses were reluctant to talk in the presence of a body-worn camera, even when the device was switched off.
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- Equipping police departments with body cameras is extremely expensive because agencies must budget for:
- The camera and also for ancillary equipment
- Data storage facilities
- Extra staff to manage the video data
- Maintenance costs
Here are some specific examples of the hardships created by body cameras:
- To equip the Bakersfield Police Department, a force of 200 officers, would cost an estimated $440,000 in the first year, and $240,000 in subsequent years.
- In Philadelphia, a four-year deal to equip a department of over 4,000 officers cost $12.5 million.
- Police departments in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah have suspended body-worn camera programs citing rising costs.
- A trial in Edmonton, CA, found that body-worn cameras had an insufficient battery length for every day policing, especially in cold weather where battery life diminished more quickly.
- A sheriff’s office in Virginia has stopped using body cameras due to the unreliability of their on-off buttons and poor integration with their IT systems.
BUYING A PIG IN A POKE
The media has sold body cameras as a silver-bullet solution, a novel “quick fix” to cure policing of its public trust deficit. I believe, police behavior will continue to be shaped most by recruiting, training and experiences on the street by police officers.
The footage gathered from body cameras may yet prove a valuable tool for understanding where training fails and where recruiting and training can be improved. Body cameras can be useful as analytical rather than prescription.
What are your thoughts on body cameras?
“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “
We couldn’t agree more.
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