With the emergence of smart phones and social media, most people now have the capacity to record and share any part of their daily lives with a larger and attentive audience. A ramification of this is the “new visibility” that the police are now subject to (Goldsmith, 2010), and the implications of accountability that stem from it. The body camera is a compelling and seemingly effective piece of technology that drastically changes how we view accountability measures, albeit still new and unproven to an extent.
One device, currently at the forefront of the race, is the TASER AXON camera system. Evidence.com lists five steps in using the system for agencies that are interested in adopting it – collect, transfer, manage, retrieve, and share. Officers are able to record interactions via the body camera, which can be clipped onto their uniform, in any file format, then transfer and manage the security-protected files, later retrieve them with ease, and grant access to select others off of the secure cloud storage-like network. The TASER AXON Body Camera has a retail value of $399, but there are cameras that go for less and those that go for more.
Several police agencies across the United States and Canada have taken to testing the waters of utilizing body cameras for policing purposes, perhaps as a reaction to occurrences of police brutality. A recent example would be the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the events following, including outcries for police accountability by citizens. The RCMP is one organization that has researched body worn video devices for a half-decade and pilot tested them in New Brunswick in late 2013, stating that they seek to “[enhance] transparency as well as police and public safety,” and that is exactly what is offered by the devices from an accountability perspective.
As cited in Goldsmith (2010, p. 922), Mann (2006) expresses that true transparency is achieved when an activity is recorded “by a participant in the activity,” rather than an outside observer with a smartphone camera, for instance. Body worn cameras also have other perceived advantages, in addition to heightened transparency. PERF, or The Police Executive Research Forum, is an organization based in Washington, DC that seeks to promote police professionalism. PERF has, through consultations with many police officials, explored the conveniences of body cameras as a catalyst for accountability in police agencies (Miller et all, 2014). They have gathered that relations between members of the public and the police are enhanced, as officers are able to better “resolve questions following an encounter” (p. 5). They also affirm that the cameras impede problems from developing early on, as professionalism is reinforced at both an individual level, through officer performance evaluation by video review, and at a larger level, with easier pinpointing of “structural problems within the department” (p. 6). With the identification of these problems, they are able to revisit and change protocols, for example (p. 8). Jennings et. all suggest that officers in general are supportive of the movement for body cameras, and feel that the cameras alone can improve citizen and officer behavior, as well as the behavior of their fellow officers (2014).
In departing from a descriptive tone, I would like to address the controversy surrounding body cameras from my own perspective. First, as it is a relatively new phenomenon, there might be technological issues with the devices themselves at the outset (will the point of view be narrow enough for significant interactions to occur out of visibility?), but these will be sorted out with the implementation and further expansion of body cameras as a standard, and by way of competing brands, as the video may indicate.
I’d also like to address the idea that body cameras will interfere with the ability of officers to use discretion in daily policing activities. This might be applicable, for instance, where an officer could let an individual off with a warning for a trivial offense. I do not think discretion would be a power that would be severely limited as a consequence of body cameras, as the recordings would not be meticulously reviewed. This would just not be cost-efficient. Rather, the footage would be utilized for either evidential or developmental, training purposes, as Goldsmith implies (2010, p. 926). Hypothetically though, if the footage was to be watched on a day-to-day basis, and the officer was compelled to enforce the law completely thoroughly regardless of how unnecessarily harsh it would be, this would still not in any conceivable way removed discretion from the picture altogether. Rather, this where it would become apparent what laws should be re-written, reformed, or rescinded. It would put pressure on those in charge to “trigger political and administrative responses” (Goldsmith, 2010, p. 927).
Lastly, as with any other occupation in the public sphere in today’s world, I do not think police officers should not expect absolute privacy. They especially should not cite this as a reason against body cameras, as they have specific duties, such as upholding the law despite whatever circumstances arise, that the average citizen does not. That being said, as Jennings (2014) proposes, police officers, in general, favor of the use of body cameras.
When it comes to the issue of body cameras, it’s either competent but facultative officers, or competent officers bound by the restrictions that come with undisturbed accountability. Personally, I’d take the latter.