The New York Times reports that "hundreds of law enforcement agencies" are experimenting with "body-mounted video cameras, using them to document arrests, traffic stops and even more significant encounters, like officer-involved shootings." Meanwhile, some states forbid citizens to record the same encounters, while in others police lawlessly hassle those who do. Once police are routinely recording their public interactions, Florida International University law professor Howard Wasserman tells the Times, "to say 'we can have the cameras and nobody else can' really becomes problematic." In fact, there should be more restrictions on recordings by police than there are on recordings by ordinary citizens, because police have special coercive powers. They can gain access to people's homes, for example, even without a warrant, simply by identifying themselves as armed agents of the state. If their body-mounted video cameras are on all the time, they may capture embarrassing scenes in settings where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. U.C.-Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring suggests one such scenario:
If a police officer is taking a picture of every interaction, one of the things that he may find is me, naked as a jaybird, when my wife calls to complain. Let's assume that it's either against the law or not, but I sure don't want it on YouTube. The potential for a sort of permanent embarrassment is a looming presence when everything is filmed.
Even in public, police recordings can have an intimidating impact. Imagine officers filming a protest against police brutality, for instance, or recording people as they enter and exit a head shop or adult bookstore. In short, the law in states like Illinois, which gives police more latitude to make audio recordings (and video recordings that include audio) than everyone else, has things precisely backward.
With that caveat in mind, I agree with Zimring that more recording of public encounters, whether by police or by citizens, is a positive development, helping to resolve all sorts of disputes about officer misconduct and defendant guilt. The technology is neither pro-cop nor anti-cop. While it can implicate officers, it can exonerate them too, and the same goes for arrestees.
I criticized the double standard embedded in the Illinois Eavesdropping Act in a column last month. Radley Balko described "The War on Cameras" in the January issue of Reason. Reason.tv covered the subject in May: