American police departments have seen an uptick in column inches devoted to their collective job performance of late. In most cases unasked for and unwanted, the general increase in police-related headlines has often included accusations of overreaction and outright brutality perpetrated by law enforcement personnel.
Regardless of assessments as to the credibility of justifications offered by police agencies or the legitimacy of public outrage in relation to these headlines, it has been widely acknowledged that, at very least, American law enforcement has a public relations problem. In the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, last month, in which contradictory accounts of the shooting death by a police officer of an unarmed teenager incited protests and divided a community, one proposed measure for restoring public faith in police is the implementation of body cameras. Citizens and high-profile politicians alike have suggested the obvious benefits of using such tools in the field.
Public opinion, backed by the dissemination of data gathered from observation of departments already using body cameras, has had a significant influence on law enforcement policy in recent weeks. In as many as a dozen cities, police departments have stated they have begun using body cameras. Many other agencies, including police departments in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, have announced plans to begin testing the use of such cameras in the near future.
However, evidence that body cameras revitalize public trust in their police, and create a context that practically eliminates conflict between versions of an event given by an officer and a citizen, is not enough to support this technology’s immediate and indiscriminate implementation. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the frequently precipitous introduction of body cameras has many concerned about privacy and the potential for misuse such devices have.
In a decidedly voyeuristic digital culture, one in which dashboard camera footage has often made its way onto sites like YouTube, what reassurances are there that body cameras will not effectively transform police into paparazzi that cover the masses? Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, fears body cameras, which “sometimes capture people at the worst moments of their lives,” will provide fodder for “titillation and gawking” on the Internet.
Any confidence that potential for uploading body camera footage can be limited by simply constructing appropriate safeguards is already undercut by the proven ability of entertainment outlets to gain access to sensitive material as well as recent well-publicized breaches in security of various storage platforms. Add to this a survey showing that, out of the 63 departments questioned that use body cameras, almost a third of them have no codified policies related to the devices, and the position that universalization of body cameras is “inevitable” appears lacking in sufficient foresight.
Indeed, public access to compromising video is only one of several concerns. Unanswered policy questions beyond those of data storage include when and why an officer should turn a camera on or off. Without clear guidelines, an unethical officer might intentionally fail to capture incriminating events, or victims or witnesses of sensitive crimes might be hesitant to talk to law enforcement knowing that what they say is being uniformly recorded. For some civil liberties advocates, a discussion about guidelines is itself alarming as it unthinkingly presumes that standardization of body cameras is unproblematic. Among other considerations, they express unease at how natural it would be for agencies to integrate body camera programs with other surveillance technologies, such as facial-recognition.
Put differently, implicit in the call for body cameras is consent to being continually recorded by police. General public outcry regarding increasingly invasive, and often unregulated forms of government surveillance approaches something like cognitive dissonance when that same public demands the swift adoption of body cameras as standard issue.
Not all detractors believe that body camera programs are prohibitive for reasons of personal privacy, only that introduction occur through the proper legislative and test-proven channels. Some though, are arguing that Americans are unwittingly affecting an eventual police state by demanding this technology as a means of promoting transparency.