Lights, Camera, Action: An Analysis of the Police Body Camera Debate

Posted: February 12, 2015 by theyoungcitybandit in Uncategorized


“I Can’t Breathe”

The shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014 in Ferguson, Mississippi has sparked heated debates about the relationship between police brutality and accountability around the nation. Darren Wilson shot unarmed Michael brown at least six times, twice being in the head, and was never indicted. Following this event, Eric Garner was killed on July 17th 2014 during an encounter with the police, we suffocated after being put in a choke hold. Consequently, these incidents have gained international exposure and lead law enforcement to seek ways to prevent situations like this from happening again.

Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s stories are only the tip of the iceberg, they have raised huge concerns about how closely the actions of the police are being monitored and scrutinized.

 “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere”

Although these incidents alone are not enough to produce police accountability, them among many other recent incidents have acted as a catalysts and raised awareness about issues of police abuse (Goldsmith, 2010). The media has created a “new visibility” for the police, where they cannot sweep things under the rug as they have in the past (Goldsmith, 2010). Like the Rodney King incident, Ferguson signifies just how disproportionate use-of-force can alter the reputation of the police and lead society into social cataclysm (Farrar, 2013).

Although efforts have been made by law enforcement to stop police brutality internally – through training or prosecution of rogue officers – these incidents keep occurring (Farrar, 2013). Are they unavoidable?

Who’s watching the Watchers?

Many are calling to body police body cameras, also known as “body worn video” (BWV) or “head cams” to solve this problem (Harris, 2010). These devices are compact, lighter versions of police dash cams; the video and audio recording systems mounted on the dashboards of police cars (The Economist, 2014). TASER International is one of the most well-known companies that has begun to supply police body cameras. However, they are not the first to come up with this idea; VidMic was first to market a body-worn system specifically created for cops in the early 2000s, followed by Vievu. Panasonic, Digital Ally (Clark, 2013).

About twelve years ago, TASER International decided that they wanted to find a way to capture videos of TASER deployment when surveillance videos were not available (Clark, 2013). First, they came up with the TASER Cam, which was a small camera that was attached onto the end of their conducted electrical weapon. This was almost successful; it caught the actions that lead up the deployment of the CEW and provided more insight to which actions led up to the incident. However, after the CEW would hit the floor after deployment, the camera lost focus of what was going on. What if the officers shot the put pressure on the man’s neck after tasering him? Therefore, TASER International modified their original idea and made it better; they introduced the TASER Axon Flex on-officer video camera.

It is important to recognize that the videos captured by police body cams contain incredibly sensitive and confidential data, and therefore need to be stored with great care. Not only do the videos need to be preserved, but they need to be deleted after a certain period of time, tracked and provided for law enforcement when necessary. Interestingly, most law enforcement agencies have chosen to use internal forms of storage. One common practice being burning footage onto a disk and locking it up, cataloguing it and tracking it like they do with the rest of their evidence (Clark, 2013). This is more cost effective, but takes a lot of organization and time to do effectively (Clark 2013).

The interesting thing about TASER, as well as VieVu, is that they offer a cloud storage service (Clark, 2013) to ensure the chain of custody is not disrupted and that the videos are not tampered with by cops (Harris, 2010). Their cloud-based storage system is probably the most the most sophisticated of its kind; recordings can be downloaded directly from the device into a computer system for storage, and then shares the files only with those given security access (Clark, 2013). The system tracks absolutely every activity associated with the camera; if an officer turns his camera off TASER can find out when they did this. Aside from preventing tampering and manipulation it could save a lot of time. For example, rather than having to request videos stored in the evidence room, prosecutors could access videos online with a security code (Clark, 2013).

A Win-Win Situation?

The most enticing thing about body cameras are that they seem to be a win-win situation- they discourage police brutality and discourage civilian misconduct (Farrar, 2013). The cameras deter the public from treating the police and restrain the police from abusing their powers. Cops that have worked with the cameras have even suggested that body cameras improve confrontations with civilians and strengthen police ties with the community (Miller et al 2014).


Cops may like using body cameras from several reasons. First, it would restrain people from filing bogus complaints against them. When the cops receive fake complaints, they can damage their personal life and put their careers in jeopardy. Take the man in Staffordshire who used to scratch his face with gravel and then threatened to blame the police. After finding out the officer was wearing a police body camera, he immediately ceased lying (The Economist, 2014).Investigating false complaints against officers don’t only burden the accused but also costs law enforcement lots of money (The Economist, 2014). Body cameras could reduce these emotional and financial costs substantially.

Man falsely accuses cop of being racist:

Second, body cameras can be used to collect police evidence efficiently. Instead of taking photos and writing descriptions officers can refer to recordings (The Economist, 2014). Situations where bystanders are reluctant to act as witnesses, video footage can provide as an alternative account of what happened (Miller et al, 2014).

Third, police body cameras can be used to train new officers and help law enforcement learn from their mistakes. Footage can be reviewed by supervisors and senior officers to ensure police misconduct is kept to a minimum and prevented in the future (Miller et al 2014).

 Proponents of deterrence theory would seem to be in favor of police body cameras. Deterrence theory suggests that self-consciousness and being watched lead to socially desirable behaviors (Akers, 2000). It argues that certainty of punishment influences one’s decision whether or not to commit a crime simply means making sure that punishment takes place whenever a criminal act is committed. Although the term was explored by several classical theorists such as Beccaria, Bentham and Hobbes, modern research on human behaviour also supports the idea that when certainty of punishment is high, socially unacceptable and criminal behaviour is dramatically lowered. Body cameras have ability to increase the certainty of getting caught both police officers and the members of the public.

Jeremy Bentham’s theory of surveillance, Panopticism, also relates to the appeal behind body cameras. Bentham designed a prison layout called the Panopticon that was supposed to increase security in prisons by making prisoners more aware they were being watched. His design entailed a tower positioned in the middle of a circular building, giving guards the ability to view any inmate at any time. The catch was that the tower was blacked out, prisoners always see the tower but never know if they were being watched. Bentham suggested that if prisoners knew they were being watched, they would govern their behaviour better (Foucault, 1975).

If police use body cameras like they are supposed to, they will be able to capture the entire story. When the public films a dispute between a citizen and the police, the camera usually does not start rolling until the officer does something wrong. In these cases, we are not able to see what caused the dispute and what actions led up violence and conflict. With body cams, we can see the situation from beginning to end rather than when violence or chaos erupts. However, without the proper follow up, the benefits of body cams could be outweighed by violations of privacy (Stanley, 2013).

Unintended Consequences

Although the benefits of police body cameras seem to outweigh the costs significantly, it is too early to tell. It is important for us to consider the possible consequences that may follow the employment of police body cameras.

Invasions of Privacy

As technology advances and expectations for police accountability change, it is critical that law enforcement agencies carefully consider how the technology they use affects the public’s privacy rights, especially when courts have not yet provided guidance on these issues. Body cameras are a relatively new concept and we are unaware of the effects they will have on the public’s sense of security and their relationship with the police. An important aspect of privacy is that it guarantees protection from the evaluation and judgment from outsiders (Miller et al 2014). Having a body cam strapped on every police officer is a constant reminder to the person dealing with them that they are being watched by a third party.  Yes, law enforcement insists that their technology is top of the line, but judgement and a sense of insecurity is still implied.  If we can’t trust the police, the people we count on to protect us and uphold our rights; how can we trust the faceless people that store videos of us, during the most vulnerable times of our lives? There can be bad apples in every organization, how do we know the company who holds our information are more trustworthy than the police? Surveillance videos are leaked all the time, even videos of police officers committing crimes:

 The URL above illustrates a situation when a video of a law enforcement official was accidentally leaked. What is interesting about this, is the accusation that the video was released for political reasons. It suggests that videos filmed of the public could be leaked for reasons other than police accountability; to harm someones image, to incriminate them, to

embarrass them.


A huge concern about body cameras are the possibility that videos will be tampered with. The cameras are going to generate vast amounts of confidential data, which need to be held securely. If detachments choose to use on-site storage, the police will have total control over all aspects of the video footage and there is the risk they will tamper with it. Police could delete videos, view videos that they are not supposed to or even edit out certain bits. If the police use cloud-hosted storage, the police department is paying an outside source who does not have the obligation uphold the law like a cop does. If we can’t trust the cops we can we


 No technological solution to a human problem is going to be perfect. If body cams do glitch or break during an extreme incident, everyone is going to jump to accuse the cop of tampering. A huge problem with police body cameras is that they may damage the “account ability” of police officers. “Account ability” was coined by Erickson who suggested that it is the ‘capacity to provide a record of activities that explains them in a credible manner so that they appear to satisfy the rights and obligations of accountability’ (Goldsmith, 2010). If we need footage to confirm all account of officers, what does that mean for them when no camera is present? Employing police body cams nationwide infers that police are inevitably deviant and need to be watched. It suggests that the public should not be able to trust the police, that without a body camera they are in danger of being abused (Miller et al, 2014). This is not fair for the majority of cops, it could restrict their ability to build trusting relationships with the community.


Police body cameras limit the discretion police officers use on the job. Discretion is an incredibly important part of a police officer’s job, it is their ability to decide when and when not to take action and press charges against an offender. This discretion is enabled because they are trusted and are seen as responsible enough to make such decisions. All of this is going to change if police get body cams. Suddenly, the police are being watched by their supervisors, their actions are not only going to be monitored but scrutinized as well. Most agencies employing body cams allow supervisors to access videos to be proactive and identify problems that could be avoided in the future (Miller et al 2014). Imagine never getting off for a speeding ticket. Imagine all the teenagers who the police let go with a warning to avoid giving them a record or bringing them into the system. If more charges are being laid, the crime rate is going to increase and the amount of cases in our already backed up system is going to increase. But more importantly, the trust between officers and their supervisors could be eroded.

New Eyes and Ears for the Police

Body camera’s are likely to make people feel self conscious because they are a huge violation of privacy. Privacy keeps one immune from the judgement of others and body cameras take this immunity away. Research across a variety of disciplines suggest that when humans become insecure about being observed, they alter their conduct (Miller et al 2014).

As discussed earlier, the Panopticon is useful to look at when discussing police body cameras. If you think about it, we already live in a virtual Panopticon; with all of these new technological advances, we often had to think if we are being recorded in some way; by a surveillance camera, by a citizen on their phone and now by the police.

Some may say if behaviour is altered in a way that is more compliant with the law, thats a good thing. However, that’s not always true. Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault argues, served to make prisoners take the responsibility of regulating their behaviour. Assuming they want to avoid punishment, prisoners would act in the manner enforced by the organization in charge at all times on the chance that they are were watched. The idea was that overtime, as the sense of being watched became routine, prisoners would come to regulate their behaviour as if they were in a Panopticon all times, even after they had left the prison. When we compare police body cameras to the Panopticon, police body cams start to seem more like tools for law enforcement to regulate the public’s behaviour, not to prevent police misconduct.

So how exactly are police body cameras going to influence the public’s behaviour? Evidence suggests that individuals who are aware that they being-observed “often embrace submissive or commonly-accepted behavior, particularly when the observer is a rule-enforcing entity” (Farrar, 2013: pg 2). An important part of our freedom of speech is our ability to protest and oppose actions that we deem harmful and unjust. Many law enforcement agencies that have employed body cameras have reported large reductions in complaints about police misconduct (Miller et al 2014 and The Economist 2014). Is this because they have dramatically influenced police attitudes, or because more people are too intimidated to report the police now that there are body cameras. Will ordinary citizens feel comfortable reporting information to police officers if they felt they were being recorded? I thought police cameras were supposed to be made for the purpose of police accountability and oversight, not to monitor the public. The use of recordings should be allowed only in investigations of misconduct, and where the police have reasonable suspicion to believe that a recording contains evidence of a crime.

I am not completely rejecting the idea of employing police body cameras, but before we jump on the body cam bandwagon, we as the public need to recognize that body cameras could benefit law enforcement more than they benefit us. In order to minimize the consequences that will come with employing police body cameras nationwide, a balance must be struck between oversight and privacy (Stanley, 2013). Except in raids, officers should be especially sure to ensure people they are being recorded in their homes. Law enforcement should consider having a policy where officers ask whether or not to turn the camera off in homes during non-extreme situations. Body cams can be utilized for many things, one being by the government to ensure citizens act in a manner that does not oppose the law.

Too early to tell…

If you asked me right now whether or not I supported police body cameras, I would not be able to give a definitive answer. Yes, body cameras will ensure that police won’t abuse their powers when the camera is rolling, but it is too early to weigh the pros and cons. Body cams have the potential regulate our behaviour and limit our freedom of speech. When we are being watched and recorded, we question whether or not to express how we truly feel because everything we are saying has the possibility of being subjected to judgement and scrutiny. This goes for police officers as well, whose ability to exercise discretion will be limited if they are constantly under surveillance. As members of the public, we need to remember that we are the one’s in front of the camera lens. We demand body cameras because they are supposed to increase police accountability, but I project body cameras could be used against us, to increase our likelihood of having our lives and behaviour further influenced by the government.


Clark, M. (2013, January 1). On-Body Video: Eye Witness or Big Brother? Retrieved February 11, 2015, from

Dubbeld, L. (2003). Observing bodies. Camera surveillance and the significance of the body. Ethics and Information Technology, 151-162.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goldsmith, A. (2010). Policing’s New Visibility. BRIT. J. CRIMINOL., 50, 914-934. Retrieved January 19, 2015

Harris, D. (2010). Picture This: Body Worn Video Devices (‘Head Cams’) as Tools for Ensuring Fourth Amendment Compliance by Police. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from

Kojak Moments. (2014, August 1). The Economist.

Miller, L., & Toliver, J. (2014). Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program.

Stanley, J. (2013). Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is an outstanding post – well-researched and engaging. I’m impressed!