Body Cameras: Running Before We Can Walk

Posted: February 12, 2015 by shackle4d in Uncategorized

In the words of Goldsmith, we have become a “media producing society”. The prevalence of camera equipped phones has made it easy for the once viewing public to become the producers (Goldsmith, 2010). Police deviancy videos are now common and wide spread in social media sites and the news. This newfound insight on police deviancy has resulted in outcries for police accountability, especially among minority groups that tend to be the victims of police brutality. In recent years a method for increasing police accountability and decreasing police misconduct has been brought forth in the form of police body cameras. What are body cameras?

Body cameras are relatively compact video recording devices that are worn on the body of an individual, generally with the goal of minimal physical impediment. There are multiple types and models of body cameras, but the term is most commonly used to describe the small square body cameras that are generally attached to the officer’s shirt to give a near POV video. The UK law enforcement was the first to make extensive use of body cameras and though they have seen minimal use in the United States, their use well soon increase in light of multiple high profile cases of police brutality shown in the mass media (Statsna, 2014). Body cameras are also used to a lesser extent in Canada, but there are debates over further increasing the use.

The primary purpose of body camera’s and the video’s they record is to have recorded evidence of encounters between police officers and citizens. This video evidence can not only be used to help obtain conviction, but to elucidate disputes over potential police misconduct. Public support of police body cameras tends to be high because of a positive view on the technologies potential effect for increasing police accountability (Lopez, 2015). Police officers and police departments on the other hand are skeptical about the use of body cameras and have legitimate complaints about their application. Its common place for people to act and say things that could be seen as inappropriate in a larger setting, such as crude jokes, but the application of full shift body cameras would record said behavior of police officers. Officers worry that such a situation would put them under an unrealistic level of professionalism and force them to watch every word they say, making an already stressful job even more stressful (Lopez, 2015). Another problem officers have with body cameras is that if the battery runs out or the officer forgets to turn it on during an intense conflict, in which force is necessary, it ends up putting the officer under suspicion (Lopez, 2015). Finally officers are worried over the effect body cameras could have on the public; informants could become uncooperative and victims could become upset at the lack of privacy when they notice that there potentially being recorded (Lopez, 2015).

Though police departments where initially doubtful of the benefits of body cameras their opinions are surprisingly changing in recent years over the prospect of using body camera videos to their benefit (Lopez, 2015). Though it tends to be overlooked by the public, police officers can and successfully do in fact use body camera videos to weaken disputes of deviance and protect themselves from false accusations. In fact according to recent studies body cameras are much more effective at protecting police officers from misconduct accusations while only having a miniscule effect at actually increasing accountability (Foccie-Gracia & Lieberman, 2014). Also officers tend to turn their body cameras off and on to their advantage in situations requiring force (Foccie-Gracia & Lieberman, 2014). Even when police departments make rules against tampering with the body cameras, it tends to do little to control officer behavior (Foccie-Gracia & Lieberman, 2014).

One of the most well known body camera producers are TASER, most well known for being the developers of the taser technology that is widely used by the police. TASER produces the “AXON body” a body camera with 130 degree lens and 12 hour battery life (TASER International, Inc., 2015). Body cameras typically cost anywhere from around 300 dollars to over 1000; the AXON body costs 400 dollars (Haung, 2014; TASER International, Inc., 2015). The sheer amount of data that body cameras produce also requires a lot of money to manage. Body camera data has to be reviewed, stored and edited to prevent privacy breaches (Haung, 2014). It’s estimated that in Hamilton, Ontario alone body cameras would cost around 5 to 14 million dollars during the first five years of application (Haung, 2014).

“With AXON body, the agency chooses what to do with the data.” – TASER International

TASER advertises their body camera products by assuring officers that the videos can be used to protect them from misconduct allegations. TASER promotes the fact that all data retrieved from the AXON body is completely controlled by the police department. Police officers tend to have complete control over their own body cameras and police departments store and regulate the data (Foccie-Gracia & Lieberman, 2014). Many people see body camera’s as the next logical step from the Smartphone recordings made by the public. However the fact that body cameras and body camera data is under the control of officers and police departments greatly impedes on the technologies ability to increase police accountability. The reason video recordings made by the public are such powerful catalysts for police accountability is because they allow the public to bypass the police and news media, who generally act as gate keepers of such information (Goldsmith, 2010).

Before body cameras can be made useful we need to better monitor and hold accountable the police at a systemic level. We need improved accountability agencies that can have the authority and resources to properly keep police accountable for misconduct. Until such a time we simply don’t have the institutional means to effectively use body cameras as a method of increasing police accountability.

References

Goldsmith, A. J. (2010) Policing’s New Visibility. The British Journal of Criminology, 50 (5), 914-934
doi:10.1093/bjc/azq033

TASER International, Inc. (2015) AXON Body On-Officer Video. Retrieved February 9, 2015
from http://www.taser.com/products/on-officer-video/axon-body-on-officer-video

Foccie-Gracia, C, Lieberman, D. (2014) Investigation of 5 Cities Finds Body Cameras Usually Help Police. Retrieved from
http://fusion.net/story/31986/investigation-of-5-cities-finds-body-cameras-usually-help -police/

Lopez, G. (2015) Why Police Should Wear Body Cameras – And Why They Shouldn’t. Retrieved from
http://www.vox.com/2014/9/17/6113045/police-worn-body-cameras-explained

Haung, S. (2014) Hamilton Police To Study Body Cameras for 1 Year. Retrieved from
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/hamilton-police-to-study-body-cameras -for-1-year-1.2838071

Statsna, K. (2014) Body Cameras: Can They Reduce Confrontations with Police? Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/body-cameras-can-they-reduce-confrontations-with -police-1.2861881

 

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is an excellent post. You strike a good balance between description and analysis, and your general argument – “proceed with caution” – is effective.

    Your concluding arguments and engagement with Goldsmith (2010) are particularly effective. You write:

    “However the fact that body cameras and body camera data is under the control of officers and police departments greatly impedes on the technologies ability to increase police accountability. The reason video recordings made by the public are such powerful catalysts for police accountability is because they allow the public to bypass the police and news media, who generally act as gate keepers of such information (Goldsmith, 2010).”

    This is an important point. In the preamble to my upper-year Surveillance and Privacy course, I note that “ The central theme that I wish to explore this semester is uneven transparency. With this term, I mean to capture the convergence of practices and institutions that work to make aspects of the social world more visible, and practices and institutions that work to make aspects of the social world more opaque”. Body cameras are a good example of the expanding but uneven terrain of transparency. Clearly their introduction would result in a net increase in the visibility of police-public interactions, but the key question – as you note – is ‘visible to whom?’.

    Finally, you note that “Before body cameras can be made useful we need to better monitor and hold accountable the police at a systemic level.”. This is also an important point. One of my concerns with body camera technology (though I remain cautiously optimistic about it) is that it will continue – and perhaps intensify – the trend of focusing accountability mechanisms on the actors at the lowest end of a hierarchy. Consider the video we watched in our last class, on NYPD racial profiling during stop-and-search. Officer-worn body cameras may have captured the deplorable conduct of the officers during their interaction with the young man who recorded the audio of their encounter on his cell phone. Body camera video may have led to sanctions against these officers. It would not, however, capture the systemic nature of racial profiling and the role of police quotas in driving a racialized stop-and-search policy.

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