To Save Us From the Police, It’s Cameras All the Way Down

In order to bring more justice into the American criminal justice system, we may all need to point cameras at each other.

That’s where a lot of the conversation is going in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, which of course led to the days-long crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. The thinking goes that if police officers are all equipped with cameras that record every interaction with civilians, we may actually get better results from both ends of those interactions.

In a report by German Lopez at Vox we get an idea of what the aim of police body cameras woud be:

The devices are small cameras that can be attached to a police officer’s uniform or sunglasses or worn as a headset. Such a camera could have fully captured the entire confrontation between Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was unarmed at the time of the shooting, and Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

But without the cameras, the public is left with conflicting accounts from police and eyewitnesses about what, exactly, happened.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU told Vox why that organization is backing the idea:

[Cameras] have the potential to be a win-win situation. A lot of departments are finding that for every time they’re used to record an abusive officer, there are other times where they save an officer from a false accusation of abuse or unprofessional behavior.

It’s undeniable that this, in the abstract, would be invaluable. Imagine the grief, effort, time, and expense saved when what transpires between police and civilians were reliably recorded.

Communities that have already adopted this kind of thing have reported encouraging results, with fewer complaints filed against police and the police themselves using less force. The New York Times last year quoted one such police chief as saying:

When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.

Your privacy-concern flags should be going up at this point, and for good reason. The most obvious problem is determining exactly who controls whether that camera is on or off. From my reading it seems the only solution is making it the rule that they must be recording with all interactions, but I’m not sure how you prove that this is done reliably. One might consider controlling the cameras remotely, so that the officer can’t choose when the camera goes off, but what if the officer needs to go to the bathroom, or call their spouse about a private matter? Do they need to request the camera be turned off? And then how do we know they are requesting it be turned off for legitimate reasons?*

We don’t. And this is where we get to an even more interesting idea, this one from Mike Elgan, here writing at Computerworld, in which he, too, advocates for cameras recording every police-civilian interaction, but he wants the cameras to be pointed in the other direction. “Shouldn’t recording your own police interrogation be a constitutionally protected right, like the right to an attorney?” he asks.

Elgan doesn’t limit his thesis to interactions with police, also advocating for the free recording of politicians and lobbyists, children and caregivers, and others. Here’s what he has to say about police encounters:

It should be perfectly legal to openly videotape the entire conversation, as well as when we’re questioned or interrogated. They’ve got a dash cam or interrogation room camera pointed at us. We should have one pointed at them, too. (The knowledge that such cameras are allowed might prevent abuse…)

The principle he invokes is a compelling one, that as the surveillance state grows (inexorably?) in its breadth and power, we as individuals should claim that power for ourselves as well. Accountability for our actions goes both ways, as those who make the rules and enforce the rules also have to follow them. A civilian surveillance state, a surveillance grassroots if you will, could theoretically create the balance that many worry about when it’s only the police who have control of the cameras. And now this is especially feasible since the technology readily exists for us to do so. You probably have a device more than capable of recording video or audio of a conversation with anyone within your grasp right now.

But to take a step back, here’s Jonathan Coppage at The American Conservative worries about what good cops might lose if they go around “dressed as Google Glassholes”:

One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.

That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission … [and] requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.

It’s clearly dicey. And despite what seems like the utter omnipresence of smartphones, we can’t presume everyone can have one easily at hand, or to have the wherewithal to start recording extremely stressful and often hostile confrontations. But as a tool, mutual surveillance might still be extremely useful for keeping the peace and encouraging cooler heads in tough spots. After all, the officer may only need suspect he’s being recorded for some pressure to be released.

Update 8/27/14: Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill has just said that she believes all police officers, nationwide, should be required to wear cameras, though she has not introduced legislation.

*The public radio program On the Media has a great piece on cameras in interrogation rooms that complements this topic very well, where the question of who gets to turn the camera off is also raised.

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