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Cop watch: Who benefits when law enforcement gets body cams?

An officer shows a video camera worn by some officers in Oakland, Calif.
AP
An officer shows a video camera worn by some officers in Oakland, Calif.

Police officers around the country who wear video cameras alongside their badges and guns have found that the digital set of eyes can help shield them from citizen complaints.

But a federal judge's order to force a number of New York City police officers to wear body cams has raised privacy concerns and practicality gripes.

A vow by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to appeal the plan, which he has called a "nightmare," may stall the proposed yearlong pilot program in New York, where one precinct in each borough would be equipped with cameras and the results closely monitored. The goal is to provide an objective record of "stop and frisks," which U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin found discriminated against minorities, and to encourage more "respectful" interactions.

But already, police departments around the country are doing experimental runs with such cameras, including in cities like Phoenix and Greensboro, N.C., and smaller towns like Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Even campus cops are getting them—at San Jose State University in California, for instance.

(Read more: US needs an online privacy bill of rights: Rep. Barton)

There is no overall study about the effectiveness of body cameras, but there are promising signs from smaller communities.

The police department in Rialto, Calif., put cameras on a group of officers and saw the number of citizen complaints filed drop by 88 percent—and more importantly, use of force declined by 59 percent.

A test program in Fort Worth, Texas, spurred demand among officers.

"Right now, wearing the cameras is voluntary," Cpl. Tracey Knight, community liaison and PR officer for the Fort Worth Police Department, told NBC News. "However, more and more officers are requesting to have one issued to them and some have even purchased their own."

In Scottsdale, Ariz., police started using 10 body cameras earlier this summer as the agency explores outfitting up to 250 patrol officers with the cameras. Reception was cool at first, Sgt. Mark Clark says, until an incident a few weeks ago.

A police officer's camera revealed that person who filed a complaint against a motorcycle patrol officer made up the story.

"We showed the person the video and they said, 'Um, I guess I must have remembered it wrong,'" Clark told The Associated Press.

(Read more: How Google Earth surveillance will protect forests)

While the cameras seem to impact police and citizen behaviors when on, exactly when they're on varies by police department. Some are automatic, others are triggered at the discretion of the officer, which can raise questions about what officers choose to record—or not.

Across Arizona, in Lake Havasu, the following video, taken by cameras worn by police officers shows how a fast-moving and volatile situation, perhaps difficult to recall in detail later, can be documented (WARNING: intense video with a man being taken down non-lethally but forcefully):

"I think there's a lot of potential for good," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. "There's nothing like video to allow people to believe something they might otherwise not be able to accept as possible."

But not everyone is convinced. The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, one of several unions representing NYPD officers, made its position clear in a statement from its president, Patrick Lynch:

Our members are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods, mace, flashlights, memo books, asps [i.e., batons], radio, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it. Given that the root cause of this stop-and-frisk problem is a significant shortage of police officers in local precincts, it seems to us that the monies spent on a bodycam pilot program would be better spent on hiring more police officers and providing them with extensive field training with an experienced officer.

The video systems can be expensive—cameras run from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand each—but the devices could potentially pay for themselves if a few court dates, complaints or lawsuits are avoided.

It certainly pays well for Taser, one of the companies making police-grade mounted cameras (Vievu is another popular option).

Steve Tuttle, the company's vice president of communications, told NBC News that it Taser has already sold camera systems to "hundreds of departments."

"It was one of the reasons we had a record year last year," he said. Yet unlike the company's stun-gun weapons, the cameras aren't just a hardware buy for departments. "The key is the software," Tuttle said. "What do you do with all this video? How do you securely store that data?"

(Read more: US agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans)

To that end, Taser provides a cloud-based backup and search service called Evidence.com that lets officers skip past the frequently antiquated computer- and evidence-storage systems already in place. A complaint or evidence request can be handled from any Web browser by a credentialed officer.

Perhaps the system is convenient—Knight confirmed this, at least for the needs of the Fort Worth police—but outsourcing police business to a private vendor shouldn't be taken lightly, argues Lieberman, from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The real question in the end is whether it helps the public.

Lieberman is optimistic: "If we do the hard work necessary to figure out how to maximize the accountability of the police and minimize the privacy risk, this is a win-win."

—Devin Coldewey, NBC News

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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