With the events in Ferguson, MO bringing national attention to the debate about how police interact with the public, many are trying to figure out the best way to prevent these tragedies in the future. One suggestion has come out of the technology industry and has been gaining publicity in the past week: requiring all police officers to wear cameras while they are out in the community.1 When I first heard about this idea, a few questions popped into my head, the loudest of which was “How effective will this really be?”
There are two ways that I could see this changing things. First, it could eliminate the “he said/she said” aspect in events like the Michael Brown shooting. Video footage would allow us to know what actually happened and when. It will also provide insight into who police are interacting with and how they treat various groups of people. Second, requiring officers to wear a camera could also change their behavior. If they know that the footage will be reviewed and that they will be held accountable for the actions on film, then it is more likely they will engage with the community in a respectful manner and think twice before resorting to violence.
But there are some negatives to this as well. The first that comes to mind is privacy. Many officers may not feel comfortable wearing a camera all day long or with the potential for these cameras to record personal activities such as a private conversation with their partner in the squad car. One counter argument for this is that often we have a lower expectation of privacy when we’re at work. For example, it’s common knowledge that in many workplaces your company e-mail accounts are not necessarily private. It’s also relevant to note that officers must manually hit record for the camera to begin storing data but that most precincts require that the officers begin recording as soon as they encounter a member of the community.2 However, this opens the door to sliding down the slippery slope and extending when recording is required. In fact, the first thing this reminded me of is David Egger’s novel “The Circle.” This story, in part, shows us a modern-day world in which politicians “go transparent”, or wear a camera all day, in order to reduce government corruption. They quickly fall down this slippery slope when, among other things, they begin requiring aides to go transparent as well to ensure that they aren’t making corrupt deals in the place of the politicians. While of course this is a dramatization of the potential problems, it shows us the very real privacy issues that accompany requiring people to put their life on visual display.
In addition to the privacy concerns, we must also look at the effectiveness of this protocol. For example, how might this impact public safety? We all know that there are certain instances in which an officer is permitted to, and even must, use force to ensure safety. But what if these cameras impede their ability to do this? Often these are split-second decisions. Could the presence of these cameras make officers second guess their instincts and slow their reaction time? As we mentioned above, officers have to actively turn their cameras on during interactions. What if they forget and none of the footage is recorded? Even worse, what if they know they know their actions may fall into a gray area and intentionally “forget”?
One of the positives of the cameras is a seeming increase in transparency for police departments and the public. However in some of the cities where these cameras are already being used, access to the footage is extremely limited. As one article put it, the police “effectively lock any relevant videos in a vault and throw away the public’s key.”3 While the departments themselves may gain clarity, we as the public won’t necessarily gain any additional information about police interactions with members of the community.
So to answer the original question, we don’t know how effective these cameras might be in changing how the police and public interact. As these cameras begin to spread to additional police departments we may gain more insight, but for now we just have to wait and see.
1 Libby, S. (2014, August 18). Even When Police Do Wear Cameras, Don’t Count on Seeing the Footage. City Lab. Retrieved from http://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/08/even-when-police-do-wear-cameras-you-cant-count-on-ever-seeing-the-footage/378690/
2 Womack, M. and Partovi, H. (2014, August 23). GeekWire Radio: How cops are moving to the cloud, and what it means for public safety (T. Bishop and J. Cook, Interviewers). [Audio file] Retrieved from http://www.geekwire.com/2014/geekwire-radio-cops-moving-cloud-means-public-safety/
Featured image via Libby. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)