Law in the Internet Society

Let the Cameras Roll

-- 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.

Our country is dealing with the endemic tension between the police and the citizens they, ostensibly, protect. Ferguson, Staten Island, Los Angeles, St. Louis – the list goes on. However, there is a variable that illuminates some of these incidents that is missing in others: a camera.

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. None have a tape of the incident. Brown’s death will likely remain a mystery.

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.

Cameras - Yes, please!

The nascent idea to put cameras on every policeman “has the potential to level the playing field in any kind of controversy or allegation of abuse,” according to the ACLU Senior Policy Analyst, Jay Stanley. Many seem to agree with Stanley. A White House adviser in Justice and Urban Affairs stated that the White House “support[s] the use of cameras and video technology by law enforcement officers.” Floyd v. City of NY was the impetus, partially allowed by Mayor Bill De Blasio’s acquiescence, for on-body cop cameras experimentation in New York. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James explains that “by using technology in a smart way, we will help protect our city and the civil rights of all New Yorkers.”

Critics will argue that the efficacy of body cameras is in dispute because of the lack of sample size. Criminology professor, Michael White, states that “most of the claims made by advocates and critics of the technology remain untested." However, early reports from Rialto cops 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. This, then, is not something we should take lightly.

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.” Other than a check against police abuse, it is important to remember cameras can help to mitigate lawsuits and settlements, among other things. [If every New York City policeman had a body camera it would cost roughly $33 million. However, in 2013, New York City paid $152 million from police misconduct. This shows that there is money that can be saved.] However, there are issues much greater than economics, some times things are simply fundamentally just and correct. Cameras allow an impartial third party to tell the story, and we should welcome this.

Big Brother Concerns

However, there are numerous concerns that might fall under the thumb of Big Brother. People don't want to be incessantly monitored. Cameras, it can be argued, will disrupt how police work and act day-to-day. [However, the counter point, as expressed by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is that for “… 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.” “[F]or 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." – Jay Staley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.] We need formal rules (whether promulgated by cities, ordinances, or even police precincts) about when the camera will be recording (when a cop suspects conflict or permanently?), whether there will be public disclosure of the tapes, who has access to the tapes, how long will the information from the tapes be stored, what happens when a camera-carrying cop enters a house, among other concerns.

These are all legitimate concerns, which have been brought up in public forums and different police precincts. Police – in the mold of laboratories of experimentation – can, sometimes with the guidance of the legislature of the judiciary, help guide the experimentation to best minimize intrusion into both police lives and the public. Where this will lead needs to play out.


The public, a group that is too often uninformed, yet overconfident in what they do know, is overwhelmingly for body cameras in some capacity. Numbers range around 70%-80%. However, the public might be onto something. Even, the police, those who critics of on-body cameras ostensibly are most concerned for, might be more willing to use cameras for one basic reason: it often could exonerate them. A 2002 survey of police officers suggested as many as 93% of misconduct investigations with dashboard camera evidence exonerated officers. Ron Johnson, who led security in Ferguson, succinctly stated “I believe in cameras.”

If we are not careful, on-body cameras have the potential to further be seen more in the form of a reduction of privacy as opposed to an increase in security. However, if deliberate and statistically backed decisions, on-body cameras can better protect the police and civilians, and provide countless other benefits. After all, pictures tell a thousand words – and right now it just seems like there is a whole lot of argle-bargle. There are many things we should be concerned with in our lives, providing the police with body cameras should not be one of them.

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.


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r1 - 14 Oct 2014 - 01:45:41 - EvanZuckerman
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