Four weeks since Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, and tensions are finally falling to a simmer. What started as a shooting of a 18 year old black male had turned into weeks of peaceful, and sometimes violent, protest, which was dealt with by the police and eventually the national guard. It doesn’t help that the management of said protests included questionable methods, such as curfew, tear gas, LRADS(Long Range Acoustic Devices), and the display of the vast collection of military equipment in possession of the police.
However, Ferguson police have adopted a new policy that could ease tension between the police and inhabitants of Ferguson by a significant margin. Little over a week ago, the department started deploying officers who were wearing body cameras due to a donation from security companies Safety Visions and Digital Ally. From having no dash cameras in their cruisers, Ferguson PD will now be employing all officers with body cameras to record any possible interaction with civilians. And, at face, it seems using cameras on police is a good idea. According to the often cited study coauthored by Cambridge researcher, Barak Ariel, and police chief of Rialto, CA, Tony Farrar, when police are equipped with body cameras, the annual reported use of force declined by 60% and complaints by citizens fell over 80%. This is a substantial reduction, and all that it took was the knowledge of being under surveillance. Eh tu, Brute?
The theory that people behave better when watched is old, and by now is practically common sense. Given the circumstances now, though, it has become ‘obvious’ to many that such devices be applied to officers in order to check both sides, the police and the public. People, police and public alike, behave more rationally when they know they are being watched. Even more, if someone knows that their decisions can be linked directly back to them, they’ll want to avoid any consequences. Officers will do their best to not escalate a situation, simultaneously the individual(s) involved will know better than to lie or make false accusations, post incident. Ironically, the report itself noted that such a study(to the researcher’s knowledge) regarding the behavior of how individuals act while under the direct surveillance of cameras, is few and far between. But when faced with the results, it is clear why they appeal so much as a solution. The call for the use of ‘body cams’ is still reactionary politics, but it’s reactionary politics at its best. Unlike gun laws after shootings and drug laws after overdoses, the arguments for body cameras are entirely in favor of implementation. Or are they?
The ACLU, one the of the largest proponents of the implementation of such cameras, happens to be one of the biggest voices warning against their use as well. Think about it: By implementing body camera laws for police officers, we are effectually advocating for walking cameras. Everywhere they go, they can record. Everything they record, they can save. Everything they save, they can retrieve for use later. How much do they get to record? How long do they get to keep said recordings? What about interviewing victims of domestic abuse? Rape? Will these videos fall immediately into public hands? Or will police be able to control the release of recordings to their benefit? What if officers turn off the camera? A precedence already exists of this in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an unarmed woman was shot to death by an officer equipped with a camera. Later reports revealed that his camera was off at that time, but that he already had a history of camera malfunctions during uses of force with civilians. This screams of potential abuse and problems, especially given the recent illumination over the abuses of the NSA over data collection and monitoring. Do we really want to add to this?
A podcast by NPR on September 5th drew comparison in regards to how quickly Ferguson is implementing body cams versus another city, Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix PD took roughly 9 months of research and investigation before even beginning test runs. People want an easy and simple solution as always, but just as usual, the situation is much more complex. There are serious considerations on both sides of this issue; neither of which give concise and easy answers for the potential abuses, benefits, and limits of body cameras. Nevertheless, the ACLU remains mildly optimistic. At the end of a report published on October 9th of 2013, outlining how they believe body cams should be regulated, the ACLU closes with the following statement.
Although fitting police forces with cameras will generate an enormous amount of video footage and raises many tricky issues, if the recording, retention, access, use, and technology policies that we outline above are followed, very little of that footage will ever be viewed or retained, and at the same time those cameras will provide an important protection against police abuse.
The future of American policing and civil liberties is as uncertain as ever, but it is my opinion that body cameras, with the right laws in place, can truly serve for the greater good of both the police and public. Whether this will ever come to fruition is a matter entirely different.