Body Cameras May Do More Harm Than Good

Michael Ottavio | United States

On Wednesday the New York City Police Department announced that it has officially equipped every police officer a body camera. The NYPD has since issued over 20,000 body cameras. Every uniformed cop regardless of rank will be wearing these body cameras.

This move comes after a judge ruled in 2017 that their stop and frisk tactics were unconstitutional. The court also ordered them to wear body cameras. Since the NYPD mandated body cameras, public complaints have gone down, according to reports. However, police body cameras are still very problematic for several reasons.

Privacy Concerns

One of the ultimate concerns with body cameras is the privacy of those being filmed. It is no secret that body cameras do provide the most accurate account of an officer’s interaction with a citizen. However, not all police interactions involve them drawing their weapons or using physical force.

Police often talk with victims and witnesses. More often than not, these people do not want their interactions with police filmed. Much less made public information.

Public access to the footage can be very problematic in several ways. This includes hinderance with a police investigation. As we know some investigations require questioning a witness and using informants. Not all witnesses want to be videotaped and exposed while actively taking part in an active investigation. Even more so in an area where the public is allowed access to the footage. One study found that people were less likely to talk to the police if they knew they were being videotaped. Especially if they fear it may put themselves in danger of retribution from criminals.

Studies show that roughly 230 in every 1000 sexual assaults go unreported. A survey of survivors found that of those who did not report, 20% feared retaliation. 13% believed it was a personal matter. Based on those numbers, we can expect a decrease in the reporting of sexual assaults. That is if police continue to use body cameras.

The Leadership Conference and Upturn put out a scorecard report in 2017. In the report, 67 of 75 law enforcement agencies had some sort of personal privacy policy in place. However, only 18 of the agencies had privacy policies that the LC and Upturn deemed acceptable.

Potential Dangers for Police

It is no secret that people do not generally like to be recorded without their consent. Studies have shown that police body cameras may actually put officers in more danger. Some people may react violently when approached by an officer with a body camera. Especially those who may be under the influence or have mental issues.

Being a police officer is not an easy job. It involved being put in harm’s way on a regular basis. The FBI reports around 70 million face to face encounters between police and citizens every year. That totals up to over 1 million encounters a week.

A study published in the European Journal of Criminology determined that assaults on police officers rose by 14% when the officers were equipped with a body camera.

Use of force

The use of force is arguably one of the most controversial aspects of law enforcement. One of the main goals of body cameras is to curb excessive use of force by police.

While using physical or lethal force is never the optimal outcome for any police officer, some situations do require it. However, the study that found body cameras increase an officer’s likelihood of being assaulted, also found that body cameras generally have no effect on the officer’s use of force.

This is most likely because of the number of cameras in modern society. Most people already assume they’re already being videotaped, whether it be via cellphone or CCTV. This goes for police officers too. There’s no definitive proof that body-worn cameras would even decrease incidents of excessive uses of force. This is because many officers already go about their day under the assumption their every interaction is being videotaped.

Some may argue that a body camera may lead to an increase in incidents of excessive use of force. An officer may be more likely to use excessive force if he feels he has the videotape to justify it.

We still need much more research on the effects of body-worn cameras.

Accountability

In some incidents in the last few years, such as Alton Sterling and Eric Garner, the court of public opinion has acted as judge jury and executioner before tapes have even surfaced. Even when they see the tapes, people’s opinions rarely change. People see what they want to see. They use the incident to support their already entrenched belief.

We have created a situation in which departments can be held less accountable for their officers’ actions. Instead of implementing stricter hiring standards and more rigorous training, they are using the tapes as a quick fix. We don’t need body cameras on officers, we need departments that hire better cops.  We need to hold the job of the law enforcement officer to a higher standard and hire more qualified people.

Exercising Discretion

When everything they do is film, cops can no longer use discretion. Gone are the days of cops making the humane decision to not ruin someone’s life over something small. They fear they will their jobs if higher-ups view the videos. Choosing not to hit someone who is financially struggling with a hefty fine for speeding. Choosing not to lock up a kid and ruin their chances of getting into a good college. All of those and more become an impossibility.

How Far Do We Want to Take This?

Body cameras have increased instances of assault against officers who are already doing a dangerous job. They are a serious invasion of privacy. They make it impossible for cops to be humans, they become by the book robots instead. Just about everyone is going to have an interaction with a police officer someday. When you do, do you want your videotape to end up in a public archive for the world to see?


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