Law in the Internet Society

Let the Cameras Roll (Draft II)

-- By EvanZuckerman - 14 Oct 2014


Cameras have become pervasive in 21st century society - attached to every phone and building and sometimes hovering in the sky. However, there are some things that have not yet had a camera attached to them. This should change for policemen.

The public is overwhelmingly for body-worn cameras in some capacity. Numbers range around 70%-80%. However it’s not just the public; Ron Johnson, who led security in Ferguson, succinctly stated “I believe in cameras.” As can be heard from the impassioned cries of Michael Brown’s parents and others, despite tension with the police’s privacy and civil liberties, cameras could be a way to check abuse of power and shed light on confusion. This is not a black and white issue; there needs to be serious consideration for police rights and what enables them to safely and effectively perform their duties; however, custom and unrealized concerns should not hold back a fruitful policy.

Current Events

Michael Brown was shot and killed. It is unclear whether Brown was moving towards the Ferguson cop or benignly had his hands up. There are conflicting witnesses and stories. The policeman who shot Brown will not be indicted. There is no tape of the incident; the grand jury has spoken, and yet dispute remains.

In contrast, NYPD officers stopped Eric Garner and one performed a chokehold to bring Garner to the ground. Garner had a heart attack, partially as a result of the chokehold, and died. This was caught on tape. None of it is in dispute.

Privacy Concerns

People don't want to be incessantly monitored. Police are no different. It is argued by some that cameras will disrupt how police work and act day-to-day. This intuitive argument goes something along the lines that people act differently when their every move is being monitored. This is a valid concern that needs to be taken into account. However, simply stating that this concern precludes camera experimentation is myopic.

But the Benefits...

The counter point for the normalcy argument, as expressed by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, is that “… in most instances [the camera] will affect the behavior of the officers in a good way. I think he or she will feel it’s an additional protection for them.” Jay Stanley, of the ACLU, explains that “for every time they're used to record an abusive officer, there are other times where they save an officer from a false accusation of abuse or unprofessional behavior." Thus cameras could even the playing field. The information the camera provides disinfects contradictory stories and brings what truly happened to light.

Many, such as the White House and Federal Judge Shira Schiendlin [Floyd v. City of NY, colloquially the “stop and frisk” case], who held for the use of on-body cop cameras experimentation in New York, believe video technology is for the good. Now, this is not to say that the technology does not have downsides. As such, there needs to be formal rules (whether promulgated by cities, ordinances, or even police precincts) developed. Some of my concerns are (i) when the camera will be recording, e.g. when a cop suspects conflict or permanently?; (ii) whether there will be public disclosure of the tapes; (iii) who has access to the tapes; (iv) how long will the information from the tapes be stored; and, (v) what happens when a camera-carrying cop enters a house.

Police, in the mold of laboratories of experimentation, should help provide guidance to the legislature or judiciary, about what is effective and fair. If the police are given a role in helping to guide the experimentation, they will be more likely to go along with the determination and efficiently implement the policy, as opposed to legislative diktat. The public, who is generally for police on-body and cameras (because they won’t be the ones bearing the brunt of the privacy concerns), can, and should, voice their opinion as well. The more on-board the police and the public are, the better their relations and the less likely there will be a dispute.


Currently, there is not a lot of evidence on how cops should most appropriately use on-body cameras. Critics of on-body cameras will grasp this lack of information, searching to stoke fears of what on-body cameras might lead to.

However, Rialto, a town in California, adopted on-body cameras in early 2012, and the reports have shown that force by officers and citizen complaints declined 60 and 80%, respectively, after the first year of on-body camera implementation. In the limited results so far, it seems to have quite a “civilizing effect.” In truth, most innovative ideas are not implemented flawlessly initially, but the burgeoning results are promising. Thus, this is not a call for immediate implementation, rather continued experimentation as exemplified by the San Diego Police Department who is using 100 cameras as part of a pilot program, with hopes of increasing the number to 900 for uniformed officers.

Michael Brown’s parents are not calling for on-body cameras as a panacea—it would be one way to help with the complicated issues surrounding policing in America. The call for cameras is so that an officer like Mr. Wilson might think twice before wrongfully firing, or, if Mr. Wilson was in the right, a camera would publicly exonerate him.

Let the Cameras Roll

A lot of surveillance in American life seems to abet abuses of power. However “police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.” Cameras allow an impartial third party to tell the story. We should welcome this. If deliberate and statistically backed decisions are made, on-body cameras can better protect the police and civilians.

Thomas Jefferson famously advised that "whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching." Well, all eyes are open. Let the cameras roll.


Webs Webs

r3 - 01 Dec 2014 - 04:53:28 - EvanZuckerman
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM