Police Use of Body Mounted Cameras, Yea or Nay?

Posted: February 25, 2015 by anthngonick in Policing's New Visibility
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Body cameras and their use within the policing sector is a topic that will most likely bring more legitimacy to policing operations and regular work; however questions of privacy and officer freedom are areas of concern.

It only due to fairly recent technological advancements that such an incredible feat can be produced: watching the watchers from their point of view. Generally a body camera is a small, mountable camera that records audio and visual within a varying scope depending on the make and model. The company that made its name in mountable cameras is GoPro and their ‘Hero’ series (http://gopro.com/), starting at a mere $129.99 ranging to upwards of $499.99. These cameras are small and have a rigid housing that is waterproof (up to 40m) and has HD capabilities for whatever one may put it through. Other companies that hope to make a name for themselves in the policing side of mountable cameras are Vievu (http://www.vievu.com/), and the international company that made its name in non-lethal alternatives, Taser International (http://www.taser.com/). Both Vievu and Taser have two cameras that are being marketed; Vievu ‘Straight Shooter 25’ (starting at $199.99) and the upgraded version ‘Solution’ ($399.99-499.99); Taser int. has two diverse cameras, one mountable ‘Axon’ ($399.99) and the other even smaller ‘Axon Flex’ that can be mounted on glasses, hats or cruisers but also has a bigger price tag of $599.99. The Main differences are Vievu and Taser requiring a monthly fee for law enforcement for memberships of secure storage, whereas GoPro only supply the camera and accessories. The choice is not forced, but up to the discretion of the individual police force upon which device is to be purchased.

One organization that took it upon themselves to implement mounted body cameras was the Vancouver Police Department during the court ordered disbanding of the ‘tent city’ in Oppenheimer Park in 2014. The V.P.D. bought and mounted eight GoPro cameras with chest mounts to get the perspective of the officers as they aided in the court order (Vancouver Sun, 2014). One of the main reasons behind the cameras was because of many members of the public fearing police brutality and questionable practices, but with the video evidence, if any misdeeds were to occur, more evidence would be present opposed to a video uploaded onto YouTube showing the result of an interaction.

The reasoning behind much of the push for mounted cameras is to get more of the view of the officer and what leads up to an interaction because most complaints pertaining to the police go unrecorded, while the main police discrepancies come through the viewing of an amateur video on the internet such as the cases of Robert Dziekanski or Sammy Yatim (Goldsmith, 2010). With the main goal of ensuring integrity, this new form of officer perspective will hopefully play an important role in the future.

If body cameras had been implemented to all officers, both in Canada and the US, incidences like the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown and the 2nd Degree murder charge for Delta’s Constable Jordan MacWilliams could have been used in the courts as evidence. The case of Jordan MacWilliams did not lead to a nationwide outcry as Ferguson, but it did lead to police forces in BC to questioning the charges laid for an officer doing their duty (CBC, 2014). Ferguson however, sparked disintegration of the already strenuous relationship between the public and police (NBC, 2014), so the video evidence of a body camera might have aided in the ruling of the officer involved, but may not have had too great of an effect on the public conception of police practices. However what cameras will affect are the actions and interactions officers and members of the public, both in what they do, what they say or not say due to the fact that on the other end of the camera ‘someone could be watching’. With the cameras every present, this creates a mesh of both a Panopticon and Synopticon (Goldsmith, 2010). The police (the few) oversee the public (the many), this being a Panopticon, and with the public reviewing the actions of the police, a Synopticon, then the situation is converted into a mesh between both because of the cameras on the perspectives of the public and the police.

However, with the Panopticon (few watching the many) perspective (Goldsmith, 2010) and the everyday body camera use, the personal privacy and officer actions such as discretion could often be compromised. Much of the police assemblage does not involve just crime prevention, but also community policing (Brodeur, 2010), and if every interaction were recorded, conversations of private matters, such as familial situations, questionable morals or even everyday occurrences are recorded and some of the information may not have meant to go past the people involved. The other side is police discretion and restriction of their freedom of judgment; what an officer might choose to do may not look good in the eyes of the Criminal Code, such as if petty crimes being left to discretion. However, cases of mass demonstrations and larger micro-crisis (Brodeur, 2010) the use of body cameras may be of great importance not only in keeping an officer’s integrity intact but also used as evidence against, or for, a member of the public in front of the courts. I believe that cameras should be used with discretion of the police department in specific event or areas/populations being patrolled to ensure fairness in their actions.

Sources:

Brodeur, J.-P. (2010). The Police Assemblage. In The Policing Web (pp. 17–42). New York: Oxford University Press.

CBC. (2014, December 22). Delta police pull wristbands for Const. Jordan MacWilliams – British Columbia – CBC News. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/delta-police-pull-wristbands-for-const-jordan-macwilliams-1.2881242

Goldsmith, A. J. (2010). Policing’s New Visibility. British Journal of Criminology50(5), 914–934. 
 NBC. (n.d.). Michael Brown       Shooting – Ferguson Missouri News & Top Stories – NBC News. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from  http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting

The Vancouver Sun. (2014, October 14). Vancouver police to wear body cameras for disbanding of Oppenheimer Park homeless camp. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Vancouver police wear body            cameras disbanding Oppenheimer/10288906/story.html

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This post opens with a clear and effective description of the leading body camera designs. I am glad to see some discussion of the brief VPD pilot project. There has actually been a long history of police recordings of public order events – usually through a number of dedicated camera operators and CCTV systems. What is so different about the body camera phenomenon is that it is moving the practice of ubiquitous recording into the realm of everyday patrol work.

    Could you clarify what you mean when you say “ while the main police discrepancies come through the viewing of an amateur video on the internet”?

    Great discussion of panopticon / synopticon effects of this technology.