Police Abuse

Cop Cams May Just Empower the Surveillance State

Instead of curbing abuse, cop cams could be surveillance cameras with feet.


The recent police killing of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, and others, including Michelle Cusseaux in my own city of Phoenix, have invigorated a nationwide discussion on both the left and right about police violence. Much of the debate has come to center around police body cameras as one possible way to rein in out of control cops. Even libertarians have begun to consider and advocate for cop cams. Writers at Reason have taken up the claim put forward by aspiring cop-corder manufacturer Steve Ward that "[e]veryone behaves better when they're on video." Indeed, that claim may precisely be part of the problem with body cams, as indicated by the conclusions of a recent Justice Department study of police-worn cameras.

According to the study (emphasis mine):

The use of body-worn video by frontline officers has real potential to reduce complaints of incivility and use of force by officers. The footage can also exonerate officers from vexatious and malicious complaints. In addition, I feel there are benefits to the criminal justice system in terms of more guilty pleas, reduced costs at court, and a reduction in the number of civil cases brought against the police service for unlawful arrest/excessive force. We already have good examples of bodyworn video footage exonerating officers from malicious complaints.

Since when has mass surveillance and an increase in convictions for resisting state authority been a libertarian position? How come the cop dutifully recording dissidents in public with a hand-held camcorder is bad but the officer at the protest (or in your living room) with an even smaller and harder to see camera pinned to his chest is good? Have you noticed that those cameras are pointing at us, not them?

There are several issues raised by cop-cams, not least of all the privacy implications. The expansion of real time streaming police video, evidence collection, linking up with technologies like facial recognition all raise serious concerns that are getting left out of the debate about expanding police surveillance. In a September 6 column in The Guardian, Trevor Timm asks what really ought to be an obvious question for libertarians who have spent much of the post-9/11 era opposing expansions of government spying: "[W]hat would happen if these body-cams were connected to all the other high-tech surveillance gear that's flowing into police departments at a record rate"? With the problem of increasing militarization and technology exchanges between the Department of Defense and local law enforcement now looming large post-Ferguson, this strikes me as no marginal concern.

What's more, statements from manufacturers and police chiefs indicate that they expect these cameras to protect officers first and foremost. In their view, videos will be treated by media, courts and the public as "the truth," which they conflate with the cop's point of view, probably with good reason given the track record. Ward's own company pitches the cameras with the slogan "Made for cops by cops. Prove the truth." Remember what Ward said about behavior and video? He said everyone. Not just cops. Police cameras may lead to less use of force due to the fear factor of having one's every move recorded, but at the cost of increased intimidation and coerced public conformity.

What discussion there has been about cop cams has focused on reliability, invoking the obvious concern about the notoriously "inconsistent" functioning of the technology, which is, of course, a polite way of saying what we all know: cops turn cameras off, sabotage them, and delete videos when inconvenient. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this hasn't raised concomitant questions about the kinds of people who become police or about their role in general. Thus, unfortunately, the discussion has aimed towards improving and making more ubiquitous police surveillance abilities via cop cams.

But there's another larger issue that's getting lost. While police themselves tout the supposed objectivity of the video, we need to consider the context in which cop cam evidence will be perceived and presented. A recent poll by the Remington Research Group about attitudes toward police violence in Ferguson showed stark differences when broken down by race. It's entirely possible that whites and blacks have different expectation not just from the police, but also in terms of how the footage from police cameras will be used. Considering the way that the American system of policing and punishment already disproportionately targets people of color, for example, it seems reasonable to conclude that video evidence will be interpreted by the system and the public at large through a very biased lens. Think about it in terms of who will get labeled a thug for resisting or even experiencing police violence and who will not.

At least that's what the Remington Research Group poll strongly suggests. In that case, police evidence, carrying with it the authority of the police, will only further entrench racist public opinions on use of force and likely continue to express itself concretely in similarly biased outcomes in court. Let's harken back here to the Justice Department's assertion that police video cameras will lead to more convictions and plea agreements. Police cameras may not be the great equalizer that boosters say they are, especially if all the underlying conditions of policing remains the same, racial profiling most obvious among them.

But if reforming the police is the aim, rather than, say, questioning the underlying assumptions behind the police and their monopoly on violence, there are better ways to do it, ways that don't reward out of control police with more expensive hi-tech toys. Use of force rules could be modified to include the consideration of police behavior that escalates a confrontation. Few Americans, especially white Americans, understand just how quickly an officer can escalate a confrontation to the point where force enters the equation and, most importantly, where someone's natural tendency to act in self-defense can lead to serious charges. Changing these rules, which in most jurisdictions currently only consider the moment of the specific act of violence, to take into account the entirety of the confrontation can make officers think twice.

Or, we could abolish the police union, allowing for the quick termination of abusive officers rather than the long, drawn out and overwhelmingly pro-cop internal review process that predominates now. We can stop giving vets hiring preference so that aggro ex-soldiers don't set the bar for the rest of the squad. Hiring female cops has been shown to reduce use of force. We could de-militarize police, reversing the money, technology and weapons funnel that has beefed up American police agencies in the first place. Selling off the massive weapons caches could have many benefits, not just restricted to public safety. In my own state, given our Southwest heritage, I've often joked, half-seriously, about replacing the cops' guns and Tasers with lassos. Giving police officers more ways to use force generally leads to more uses of force, as a 2011 Arizona ACLU study on Taser use determined.

And, if we want to consider a more radical move, we could just start taking complaints against police seriously. Some research has shown as many as a stunning 99 percent of complaints go uninvestigated, with police review boards and internal investigations units serving the function of active defense for the cops rather than the disciplining apparatus they are, at least on paper, supposed to be.

So before we go throwing more money and technology at the police with great potential cost to freedom, let's first consider some of the other options. Turning the police into walking surveillance cameras, with all the attendant civil liberties problems, is likely to be a choice that we regret, and at the least shouldn't be a proposition that libertarians and others concerned about the expansion of the government's spy apparatus embrace.