The Danger of Police Body Cameras

Body cameras have become a hot topic the last few months.  President Obama generously offered 263 million taxpayer dollars to fund 50,000 police body cameras over the next three years.  Incidentally, that estimate covers only 50 percent of the costs, which will need to be matched by states and cities, also courtesy of your tax dollars.

The premise of the body cameras is that police would behave better if they were recorded.  And if they didn't behave as expected, it would all be captured as video evidence.  By pushing this camera agenda, Obama is implicitly saying that we got it wrong in Ferguson – that we can no longer trust the cops.  All that evidence we collected, all that witness testimony we reviewed – it was clearly wrong.  If only a body camera had been on Darren Wilson, it would have been a different outcome.  Everything would have been crystal-clear, and Wilson would be in prison.

News outlets take this a step farther, suggesting that body cameras would have prevented Ferguson.  What's not clear is how.  If a police officer is assaulted and fears for his life, he is probably going to fire his weapon without much regard for a camera on him.  Body cameras would have prevented Ferguson only if you ignore the evidence and hold to the narrative that Darren Wilson was a racist killer who hunted down Michael Brown.  But simply assuming an outcome is hardly an argument for cameras.  The one thing body cameras might have prevented is the ensuing protests and riots.  But even with video evidence, it probably would have been the same reaction from the Ferguson mob.  If they refused to believe the mounds of evidence and testimony, why would video footage change their pre-emptive conclusions?

Even assuming that body cameras are the answer to all these supposed problems, it's not clear that any thought has been focused on the practical implications of having full-time surveillance attached to a fleet of police officers.  Logistical issues could quickly overwhelm police forces.  In addition to all the standard equipment, now cameras must be ready at all times, fully charged for each officer.  And each camera must have sufficient memory to record full shifts of activity, which more likely involves frequent downloads to computers in squad cars.  On top of that, each department must now maintain a data center to store an unprecedented amount of video storage from each officer, along with personnel and software to archive and search through the massive amounts of data, much of which doesn't seem to be included in the initial cost estimates.

Beyond logistics, there are privacy concerns with all the incidental footage that will be captured.  If a police officer wishes to talk to witnesses, how many will be willing to have a conversation knowing that it's all being recorded?  And what about the effects on the police officers?  Besides carrying additional equipment, many departments are implementing policies to force officers to record during specific periods, placing yet another burden on officers.  And what if, amidst the chaos and spontaneity, an officer legitimately forgets to activate his camera?  Ask the Oakland Police Department, which has used body cameras for the last two years and has already disciplined officers on 24 occasions for failing to activate body cameras, including suspensions.  Interestingly, reports on the success of the body cameras in Oakland have noted battery life problems with the devices and have "shown themselves highly likely to malfunction during crucial incidents – or fall off, or be left behind or not turned on, despite policies which require officers to wear them and activate them during stops and other encounters.”

Body cameras also place unfair scrutiny on the officer force.  Although being sold as an accountability tool intended for review of specific cases, the nature of the setup also allows unprecedented  surveillance of the police force, which could easily be used to discipline officers for minor infractions, such as traffic violations.  Instead of focusing on protecting officers and their citizens, police departments will turn their attention to analyzing their own.  Even in the review of specific cases, body cameras show only a specific viewpoint of an officer and could easily be out of view of actions that are critical to the case.  Close-quarter situations may also produce unusable footage, since cameras require a certain distance from the subjects. 

In the digital age, technology is often assumed to be the right answer.  But in the case of body cameras, we aren't even asking the right questions.  Nevertheless, these are the answers the protesters want to hear, and Obama will give them what they want.  It remains to be seen whether this program will take off or, like so many other Obama promises, fall off the radar in a few months once Ferguson and the related incidents have been forgotten.  If it does survive, there's no doubt it will only add to the evidence showing that the vast majority of police force is completely appropriate.