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Who Wins When Cops Wear Cameras?

This summer from hell has put out-of-control policing front and center in the American conversation.

by Matt Taylor
Sep 8 2014, 2:39pm

Can body cameras stop them from committing acts of brutality? Photo via Flickr user Ed Yourdon

If nothing else, this summer from hell has put out-of-control policing front and center in the American conversation. Once Staten Island resident Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer's apparently illegal choke hold in July, the floodgates opened and flagrant civil-liberties violations seemed to be all around us. The deluge culminated in the macabre spectacle that was the the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its cartoonishly militarized aftermath. Now Ferguson cops are wearing cameras in a nod to concerns about their treatment of black citizens in the St. Louis suburb; such devices are already used (at least on a trial basis) in cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, Las Vegas, and Seattle. And on Thursday, embattled New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that the NYPD would launch its own camera pilot program. But how big of a deal is it for local police to sport a recording device, and more important, do cameras actually reduce police brutality?

It's tempting to think that, like so many other problems in modern life, we can just invent some new technology–or in this case, adapt it—to meet our needs. Need a date? Fire up Tinder. Need a ride? Get an Uber. Worried about date rape? Just coat your nails with special polish. Hungry, stoned, and don't want to leave your couch? There's plenty of apps for that, too. Police cameras seem to promise a similar brand of instant relief. Presumably, your average beat cop is less likely to go on a power trip and beat a vulnerable person senseless if he thinks he might have to explain the video to a grand jury afterward. But slapping cameras on police officers' lapels is no panacea, and presents all sorts of tricky questions about privacy in this era of unchecked state surveillance. Besides, we know that, by way of example, cops in Albequerque, New Mexico, went ahead and killed a mentally ill homeless man on tape last year despite the officers' cameras. Remember, Rodney King was beaten on tape (and so was Garner, for that matter)—for all the good it did him.

Police in major metropolitan areas seem just as anxious to have a map of everything civilians are doing at any given time as they are to ease up on the brutality. In fact, proponents for cameras on cops make that very argument: Police should welcome more documentation of their activities so that anti-cop agitators can't claim harassment or mistreatment when none occurred. 

"Body cameras ought to be a win-win for both the police and the communities they serve as long as their use is limited to police interactions and addressing complaints of abuse or wrongdoing," Donna Lieberman, head of the ACLU in NYC, said in a statement. "But we also have concerns about mission creep and privacy. The NYPD has a long history of engaging in surveillance of innocent New Yorkers, and body cameras can’t become yet another tool for massive police surveillance." Most notoriously, the NYPD has systematically spied on Muslims for more than a decade now, with some of the cameras pointed at mosques easily visible in broad daylight. (One part of that spying program was shuttered to great fanfare earlier this year, but Muslim activists are confident surveillance of their friends and neighbors is ongoing.)

It's also rather convenient for Bratton to be making a show of the camera program, given that a court order stemming from his predecessor Ray Kelly's stop-and-frisk regime forced the cops to give it a try. The plan is to outfit 60 officers with cameras in neighborhoods where allegations of harassment are particularly common, the same neighborhoods at the center of the stop-and-frisk lawsuit (that includes the part of Staten Island where Garner was killed). So this isn't so much a gesture of accountability as it is a political response to a summer of rage.

"This kind of unilateral decision on the part of the NYPD follows the non-transparent, go-it-alone approach to police reform we saw with the prior NYPD and mayoral administration," according to Darius Charney, attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the stop-and-frisk lawsuit.

There's hope that Bratton is sincere in his desire to test and then expand this program, since during his time as LAPD commissioner he helped get a chunk of that department's cars get outfitted with cameras (though only now is the LAPD experimenting with actual body devices). But the commissioner (along with mayor Bill de Blasio) keeps whining about technological hurdles, like buying all the necessary cloud server space to store the videos. That raises another issue: How secure will the footage be, given that photos can be stolen from such servers by savvy hackers? And Bratton hasn't released details about when NYPD cops will be required to turn the cameras on, suggesting they'll have plenty of leeway depending on what kind of a mood they're in that day.

What we still don't know is whether the NYPD, which is such a far-reaching law enforcement agency that it maintains a presence in other countries, is simply trying to step up its surveillance game. It's not exactly comforting that the same private police foundation that funds the department's foreign counterterrorism bureaus is ponying up the cash for the cameras. In the end, body cams aren't necessarily about protecting civil liberties, brutality complaints, or frivolous lawsuits. They might just about getting more electronic eyes out there.  

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