Could Michael Brown—a young black man fatally shot by a white police officer in April in Ferguson, MO—still be alive if the police officer was wearing a body camera? That’s what some officials in New York City argue.
In the next few months, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the largest municipal police force in the United States, will require a number of its officers to wear body cameras. Sixty wearable cameras will be used in total, distributed among five high-crime areas of the city. These cameras have proven to be divisive: while some embrace them as a technological breakthrough similar to the introduction of two-way police radios in Boston in 1934, others condemn them as another privacy-invading surveillance tools wielded by a government with a spotty record on civil liberties.
The idea behind the cameras is simple but has the potential to radically change the nature of law enforcement. The theory is that if police officers are kept constantly on camera, they will become more mindful of their behavior and reluctant to use unnecessary force. In the increasingly diverse society in which we live, better police oversight is both necessary and long overdue: minorities and lower-class individuals are too-frequently falsely accused, abused, and, in cases like that of Michael Brown, killed by over-aggressive police. Jeffrey Smith, a former Missouri state senator and an urban policy professor at the New School for Public Engagement believes that the body camera program “is a positive first step that, if adopted across the country, could begin to repair some of the broken trust between a lot of communities and law enforcement.”
Those who oppose the use of police body cameras, though, are concerned about the negative ramifications of having everything on tape. Yale political science professor Gregory Huber explains, “On the one hand, we hope it would cause the police to anticipate that their conduct could be reviewed. On the other hand, people might now think, ‘Well, I’ll allege misconduct’ and hope there is evidence of that on the tape.”
Eugene O’Donnell, former NYPD police officer and City University of New York Criminal Justice professor, has similar concerns that the cameras will lead to officers taking less initiative in the streets in order to avoid any accusations of misconduct. “I, as someone who is a police trainer, I would have to say to a young person who wanted to be a police officer: be very, very, very careful about being proactive and only take on issues that you can’t avoid,” O’Donnell asserts. He adds that this mentality leads to passive policing, which also causes rifts with communities that want more involved officers.
Rialto, a small city just outside Los Angeles that equipped all 70 of its officers with body camera in 2012, did see improvements in misconduct allegations. Over one year, complaints against officers dropped 88%, and the use of police force fell by 60%. This result should not be surprising: in an interview with The Politic, media liaison for the New Haven Police Department (NHPD) David Hartman praised the positive impact body cameras can have in improving the police public image. Because a body camera will accurately record and store events as they happen, it will not only make officers more careful but will also “be the best tool for [protecting against] false accusation that the police have ever had.”
In a justice system that has been accused of blatant failures and negligence, body cameras can also fulfill a vital role in providing evidence. Courts can watch the first-person view of an officer in action; crimes, irrevocably captured on video, can be accurately played back for a jury. Convicting criminals—or proving the innocence of a defendant—becomes less a case of subjective rhetoric and more the product of objective fact.
If the potential upside to implementing body cameras is so astounding, why have police departments throughout the country been so slow to adopt them? For Michael Brown, it is already too late. It seems reasonable to assume that if officer Darren Wilson was wearing a camera, Ferguson, Missouri would be just another city, not another example of police aggression in a society that is still wracked by implicit racial prejudice. Would the cameras have prevented the officer’s actions by making him more hesitant to use force while being recorded? The statistics suggest so. Would the jury deciding whether the man’s actions were justified or a result of racial prejudice have an easier decision to make if they could see the officer’s first person perspective? Definitely.
Nevertheless, skeptics argue that while body cameras offer numerous advantages in promoting police accountability and judicial efficiency, they place tremendous responsibility and power in the often-undependable hands of government. Video cameras that can record your every move—coupled with readily available facial-recognition software—can be easily abused by a government that has already built an impressive résumé of invading citizen privacy. After Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s controversial surveillance activities, there seems to be a general sense of unease when it comes to the threat of increased government over-watch. Professor Huber argues that constitutional concerns arise not because of the device’s recording capabilities, but rather because of how the identities of those being filmed are protected. He believes, “The key question isn’t whether you have a right to be on camera, but under what conditions video from a police interaction would be released and to what audience. If ordinary citizens who weren’t breaking the law and weren’t involved in a lawsuit with the police had to worry that the police could selectively release recordings, it might be a real concern, much as concerns have arisen about crime scene photos and other documents being leaked by government sources.”
Former Missouri State Senator Jeffrey Smith sees the compromise as necessary and unlikely to raise major controversy. Smith says, “Public policy is about trade-offs, and sometimes you can’t have one thing without the other. I know a lot of people would prefer that cops get monitored by cameras, but normal people wouldn’t be; I just don’t think that’s realistic.” Based on his experience representing a community with high crime rates, Smith believes people will gladly sacrifice some privacy for more oversight.
Hartman, the NHPD media liaison, further believes that the privacy concerns are greatly exaggerated. He points out how unrealistic this “big brother” fear is concerning body cameras: “Just because they are being filmed at the time that they are making the complaint doesn’t mean that that information becomes public information. Officers do not download their own information; it’s stored. There’s nobody sitting there that’s going to take an officer’s eight hour shift on their body cam and just watch eight hours to see if something happened. What do you do with the other 100 officers on that shift? Eight hundred hours of review per shift? It’s not going to happen.” Clearly, the expectation that each second of our private lives will be analyzed is unrealistic. More importantly, the fact that the cameras are limited in the amount of video they record—with only the previous 30 seconds of video saved when an officer presses record—means that the cameras do not save everything they film but rather the video that is pertinent to a crime or police action.
As with any new technology, though, there are significant risks with requiring police officers to wear body cameras. The potential advantages they can provide, however, in preventing crime and police misconduct are enormous and warrant, at minimum, continued testing and studies of their use in public. Ultimately, until a viable alternative is suggested, implementing police body cameras seems to be the most plausible solution for the troubled police-citizen relations we face as an increasingly diverse society.