Smartphones have changed the way we live, and they have certainly changed policing dynamics. Just a few years ago, it’s unlikely anyone would have had a recording device on them to video two suburban Atlanta police officers beating a young black man who had his hands up as he exited a car.

Today, with a smartphone in nearly everyone’s constant possession, odds are someone is around to record such incidents. The two police officers, Michael Bongiovanni and Robert McDonald, were fired and charged with assault after videos of them beating the man surfaced.

Bongiovanni, a nearly 20 year veteran, has since filed an appeal and is seeking reinstatement.

Georgia’s Gwinnett County Solicitor recently threw out 89 cases relating to the pair, all misdemeanors or traffic offenses.

Cameras and Police Assault

Are the numbers of police assaults down since police departments started using body cameras and the average person walks around with a recording device?

The answer: Yes and no.

The largest study to date was conducted in Rialto, CA.  The study involved all of Rialto’s 54 “front-line” police officers, and took place over a year, from February 2012 to February 2013. Law enforcement officers were assigned to either wear a body camera or not wear one when working. Those officers wearing the cameras were to tell every member of the public encountered that they were being recorded.

At the end of the study, researchers compared uses of force during the year between camera-wearing and non-camera wearing officers, with startling results. Officers wearing a camera had half the incidents involving use of force as their non-camera wearing colleagues, and when they did resort to force the video showed they were doing so because the people they were dealing with became violent.

Based on the evidence, the non-camera wearing officers initiated “physical contact” in 25 percent of the situations. Overall, the number of complaints against police officers in Rialto dropped an astonishing 90 percent from the prior year. However, the Rialto researchers caution that smaller studies have not come up with the same results, and they feel some studies are skewed by an officer’s ability to turn the camera on and off.

Exactly why an officer chose to turn his or her camera off before an incident with a suspect is an issue they will have to face in court.

As for smartphones, the public knows the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Philandro Castile because someone – in Castile’s case, his girlfriend – videoed their killings. While Garner’s death ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s no solid evidence to date that personal video recordings have affected police assault rates. In high-risk situations with adrenaline pumping, it’s probably not something officers think about.

However, in less charged situations, such as a routine traffic stop, police officers might keep in mind that someone in the vicinity is recording them. If the officers have body cameras on, they are well aware their actions are recorded.

Body Camera Implementation

Roughly one-third of American police departments currently use body cameras, but many others have the matter under discussion. The ACLU generally supports the use of body cameras, but warns implementation is the key. Police departments should not allow officers to edit the video “on the fly.”

Police officers often enter homes and stores during the course of their work, and there are people in the home or place of business with no connection to an alleged crime, as either suspect or victim. Certainly, witnesses fearing retaliation do not want police recordings to ever surface. There’s also the possibility that police departments might use video against whistleblower officers, looking for some recorded infraction.

The ACLU suggests an automated trigger development for body cameras, rather than cameras on every minute an officer is on duty. The trigger may consist of the police car’s siren or lights starting, which is how dash cams works. Outside of a vehicle, loud noises or raised voices could trigger the body camera.

New developments in video recording technology will change the way body cameras are used in policing. However, if the Gwinnett County Police Department had body cameras on its officers in April 2017, a young man might not have suffered a kick to the head and a blow to the face.

If someone hadn’t recorded the incident and posted it on social media, these two officers would still be working for the department, possibly using all kinds of force on people stopped for simple traffic offenses.