The grand jury’s decision is out. What now?

Darren Wilson will not be indicted. There may yet be a civil suit and/or federal intervention. Lots of people are demanding a policy change. Michael Brown is dead; something has to give. But what?

One idea that’s percolating up through the discourse is to mandate the use of body cameras on active duty police officers. This is now being championed by Michael Brown’s parents. Let’s talk about this.

Body cameras on every officer?

It’s easy to understand why Michael Brown’s parents have taken up this cause and would support such a policy change. Eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding their son’s death are disputed and conflicting. Some witnesses claim that Brown’s hands were raised and that it appeared he was trying to surrender. Others refute this claim, including Darren Wilson. In an interview released after the grand jury’s decision, Wilson claims that he was being charged by Brown and feared for his life after a physical altercation in the police car. Ezra Klein points out that, as told in that interview, Wilson’s story is difficult to believe. A video could provide clarity in a way that conflicting eyewitness reports have not.

Further, beyond the situation in Ferguson, a small but rapidly growing body of evidence compellingly suggests that when police officers know their actions are being recorded, they behave much better.

According to a year-long study of the Rialto, Calif., police department, the use of “officer worn cameras reduced the rate of use-of-force incidents by 59 percent” and “utilization of the cameras led to an 87.5 percent reduction in complaints” by citizens against cops.

Time Magazine, “Make Cops Wear Cameras,” August 14, 2014

Not only do body cameras lead to better behavior by the officers wearing them, it’s not difficult to see how the public could feel better served and more protected by heightened accountability. From the same Time article:

Such results are the reason that the ACLU is in favor of “police body-mounted cameras,” as long as various privacy protections and other concerns are addressed. And it also explains growing support for the policy among elected officials. In the wake of Eric Garner’s chokehold death in July, New York City’s public advocate is pushing a $5 million pilot program in the city’s “most crime-plagued neighborhoods” as a means of restoring trust in the police.

Time Magazine, “Make Cops Wear Cameras,” August 14, 2014

We live in a country where faith in the ability of government to do its job has steadily eroded for the last twelve years. A strong racial gap exists when it comes to trust in “the police” as an institution:

Gallup’s Frank Newport notes that the police tested third-highest out 17 institutions in whites’ confidence, behind only the military and small business. Blacks rated police seventh, behind organized religion, the medical system, and television news.

The Atlantic, “Americans’ Deep Racial Divide on Trusting the Police,” August 20, 2014

Body cameras may help begin to rebuild trust in American government at one of its most frequent points of interactions with everyday citizens–law enforcement.

Not so fast.

Americans overwhelmingly support more police transparency and accountability–we want to know that those tasked with enforcing the law are also obeying said law. Mandatory body cameras may help with that. Three immediate concerns come to mind.

First, though it is certainly not being pitched as such, putting a body camera on every cop would amount to a dramatic expansion of domestic surveillance. There are approximately one million full time police officers in the United States. This would translate into an additional one million mobile surveillance cameras on America’s streets and in our neighborhoods. What happens when the Department for Homeland Security syncs up all of these cameras in real time and adds facial recognition? This is a serious question. The immediate hurdle, of course, is processing such a massive amount of information. Don’t worry, though. Our military industrial complex is already working on it:

Advocates of surveillance point to advancements in technology as proof that cameras will, in the future, enhance response and assist prevention. Leaders of video surveillance — companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — are shifting the industry from analog to digital, and into the uncanny, science-fiction realm of smart cameras.

The future of surveillance is “video analytics,” where computers will automatically analyze camera feeds to count people, register temperature changes, and, via statistical algorithms, identify suspicious behavior. No technicians required. Up to this point, surveillance has been limited by personnel: For surveillance to be useful in real time, someone has to keep an eye on all those CCTV feeds.

Fortune Magazine, “The Great Surveillance Boom,” April 26, 2013

I’m not one for wearing tin foil hats, but before we rush into putting a high-definition body camera on every cop in this country, let’s have a conversation about what the potential ramifications are. Once we go down this path–as we’ve seen with nearly every single expansion of domestic surveillance–it becomes incredibly difficult to turn around and walk the other direction.

Second, beyond philosophical questions about surveillance, there are practical concerns about the effects of body cameras on day-to-day police work. When it comes to working with informants, interviewing witnesses, etc. the presence of a camera may in some situations make policing more difficult. I’m inclined to say that this is probably worth the hassle and complications, but it’s worth considering.

Finally, I keep wondering which is more dangerous: unaccountable police or mass surveillance? If it’s possible to rein in the former without giving way to the latter, this becomes a simple question, but it’s unclear if it’s really that easy. The reality, too, is that which is more dangerous likely depends on who you are. I’m an upper middle class white male. What we understand as “mass surveillance” is probably “more dangerous” in my day-to-day life than what we understand as “unaccountable police” in the life of Michael Brown and the lives of poor, young black men across the country.

I keep trying to consider this question from the original position, but without thoroughly understanding the consequences of either mass surveillance or unaccountable policing, I’m unable to arrive at a clear answer.

What’s next?

We need more data. The deployment of body cameras comes with significant potential upside and downside, and the decision is about weighing those against each other and figuring out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

If we see more evidence that suggests wearing body cameras significantly alters police behavior in a positive way and we are also able to regulate the use of the video streams from these cameras in such a way that we are not eroding privacy rights of the public, we should seriously consider moving forward with more body cameras nationwide.

In the mean time, deploying body cameras in limited quantities with strict oversight makes a lot of sense. The information we glean from these samples will help us make a better choice. Hopefully, too, we’ll learn how to appropriately handle the video that’s gathered in a way that both creates accountability and protects the public’s privacy. ⋅

Related matters

In Australia, the New South Wales state parliament is considering legislation that would enable police officers to wear body cameras when responding to reports of domestic violence. The idea here is that video testimony would help make sure that witnesses are not later coerced to tell a different story.

The legislation has received a mixed response from Australia’s women’s groups. NSW’s Police Association, however, is pushing for body cameras on all police at all times.

Additional reading

Vox: How body cameras could change the police

The Dish: Cameras for Cops

Time: Make Cops Wear Cameras

New York Magazine: Ferguson Police Have Started Using Body Cameras


While I was writing this, a friend of mine mentioned a book in which elected officials are required to wear body cameras–now there’s an idea!

The same friend raised another interesting point: what if body cameras are used as a first strike disciplinary measure? “Want to keep your job? Wear this body camera.” Makes sense to me.

Another friend chimes in:

This adds another layer of technical complexity, but what about cameras that activate when weapons (pepper spray, tasers, guns, etc.) are drawn? That could help address the concerns with either always-filming or discretionary devices.