Following protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of an armed police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, some activists have been pushing for police body cameras in an effort to increase accountability. The idea appears to be taking off. In December, President Barack Obama announced $263 million in federal funding for police body cameras, and police departments around the country have been exploring other avenues for introducing the technology.
There was a time when it would have felt like science-fiction, but in an age of iPhones and Google Glass, the concept itself is pretty simple. By issuing non-obtrusive, wearable cameras, police can record interactions with the public and the footage can be used to both ensure police officers follow protocol and also to verify and vet any accusations made against them.
There are several different types of cameras in development, and The Wire has a decent rundown of how the main types of body cameras work. Most allow the police officer to turn the camera on as needed, preserving battery life and ensuring that only relevant interactions are recorded, and to then have them turn it off once they have clearance from headquarters to do so. A company called Vidcie followed a slightly different path, constantly broadcasting a livestream to officers on duty at the station, which the company claims would ensure a chain of custody. Footage is then stored in the cloud on secure servers, with only authorized access and no option to delete what's been recorded. The devices are either worn as a headset or on the officers body as part of their uniform.
Besides the question of how body cameras work though, the broader — and more important — question is do they work? And who do they actually work for?
For activists focused on police accountability, the death of Eric Garner on Statten Island raised significant questions about whether police body cameras are a distraction from issues like racial profiling, over militarization or police rules of engagement. After all, if an unarmed man could die in an illegal choke hold in a homicide on camera without legal consequences for the officer concerned, what use would a body camera be in future incidents? Meanwhile police have raised questions about whether body cameras could impede their law enforcement capabilities — causing officers to second-guess their actions in a potentially hostile situation where seconds matter, or raising undue suspicions if footage was unavailable due to technical problems and/or if there was no time to activate the camera. Privacy and civil liberties advocates have also raised concerns about the implications of routine use of body cameras, pointing out that it essentially turns each officer into a moving CCTV camera, including when they enter a private residence during the course of carrying out their duties.
Police body cameras are so new that it seems hard to say what impact they will have on community relations or the effectiveness of law enforcement, not to mention any unintended consequences we may not have foreseen yet. Uri Friedman writes over at The Atlantic that while there have been some promising signs in various trials in the U.S. and the U.K., there simply isn't enough data to come to any conclusions about the effectiveness of these devices yet:
Earlier this year, Michael White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, arrived at similar conclusions in a study for the Department of Justice. He reviewed five studies, including Ariel's [Barak Ariel, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge], which represented "the entire body of evidence on body-worn cameras." Citing a lack of "rigorous, independent studies using experimental methods," he concluded that "there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police," and that "most of the claims made about the technology are untested."
If we feel such standards on the use of force are unjust — or that they are not being applied equally for all people, regardless of race — then we need to demand that our elected leaders change these laws. But we cannot correct injustice if we cannot see it. Gandhi said that we "must make the injustice visible," and that may be the real value of body cameras in policing. Body cameras have the potential not only to expose when cops break the rules, but they will also help expose laws that are unjust.
We are going to have to talk about investing in communities and education. We are going to have to talk about access to guns. And access to opportunity. We're going to have to talk about mental health care. And we're going to have to think about investing in alternatives to policing such as unarmed intervention and mediation too.
In short, we are going to have to talk about everything. Cameras may prove to be a useful tool, but they are no silver bullet. And they are no replacement for a deep, robust conversation.
Sami Grover is a writer and the creative director at The Change Creation, a brand creation agency that works with entities who make the world better, fairer or truer.
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