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Police Body Cameras
Last month, the city of St. Louis unanimously opted to accept a year of free body-worn cameras from Axon, formerly known as TASER and the nation’s largest camera vendor. While some members of the community, including the families of those who have been killed by the police, have pushed the city to adopt body-worn cameras, cameras alone can’t fix the accountability problems that have plagued police departments both locally and across the country.
Last summer, the NYPD asked New Yorkers what rules should apply to the body-worn cameras that police will soon begin wearing. The response was overwhelming: More than 25,000 people responded to the department’s survey. The community asked for policies that would make the camera program more transparent, so that the footage can make cops more accountable to the people.
Last week, the NYPD announced its new body-worn camera policy. Turns out, the NYPD isn’t actually that interested in what the public thinks.
On Wednesday, Taser International announced it is changing its name to Axon—and that it is offering every police department in the United States free body cameras, plus free software and data storage for one year. This announcement is a big deal, but not because it’s a great boon to policing. It isn’t.
More than two years after Ferguson became a hashtag, spawned a movement, and drew national attention to problems about police accountability, the most tangible reform has been the spread of police body cameras. Their use seemed like a clear solution to problems of trust and oversight, but the reality hasn’t been that simple. Body cameras have introduced new problems of their own. How can we do better when the next new police technology arrives? Here are five things to keep in mind.
After months of consideration, the San Francisco Police Commission approved rules Wednesday for use of the latest innovation sweeping law enforcement nationwide — police body-worn cameras. Toney Chaplin, San Francisco’s acting police chief, had announced on his first full day in the job last month that deploying body cameras was his top priority.
"But Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit that studies the intersection between civil rights and technology, isn’t bullish on the technology as a panacea for residents or better relations between police and the community.
“Looking at the evolution nationally since Ferguson, I think there’s reasons to be skeptical of the efficacy of body-worn cameras, especially given their cost,” he said.
Yu cited a 2017 Washington, D.C. study that found the cameras didn’t reduce the use of force and citizen complaints or change police behavior."
"“One of the main reasons we’ve adopted body-worn cameras across the country is because of a mistrust of police and for the purpose of improving community/police relations,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of the Washington civil rights nonprofit Upturn, which evaluates departments’ body camera policies. “This is the animating concern of the adoption of body cameras, building that trust.""
"Harlan Yu, the Executive Director of Upturn who has studied the use of body-worn cameras, said that it is safe to assume that data collection in the brick-and-mortar world "is just going to grow larger over the coming years.""
"“I think if somebody at the department knew about it, they should have at least flagged that footage,” said Harlan Yu runs a DC non-profit that studies body cam policies."
"Harlan Yu, executive director of UpTurn based in Washington, D.C., a group that participated in a review of MPD's body camera policy, said the individual or the next of kin should "always have access" to body camera footage before filing a police complaint.
Yu said a review of Memphis police policies shows the agency does not have "any provisions" like that in the department's policy.
"Harlan Yu, the executive director of Upturn, a Washington nonprofit consultancy that has studied body cameras, says that live-streaming could erode community trust and help enable more controversial technologies down the road.
“The capability to livestream all BWC footage back to a department- or precinct-wide command center… will further entrench body-worn cameras as tools for police surveillance of communities, rather than tools for transparency,” he wrote in an email."
"Are officers deliberately neglecting their cameras – even shutting them off – to undermine the transparency promised by expensive investments in body cameras and in-car video systems?
And are supervisors letting them get away with it?
“We are seeing this happen over and over,’’ says Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that studies the role of police technology in protecting civil rights."
"“Facial recognition is probably the most menacing, dangerous surveillance technology ever invented,” Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, told me in an email. “We should all be extremely skeptical of having it deployed in any wearable technology, particularly in contexts [where] the surveilled are so vulnerable, such as in many contexts involving law enforcement.”"
"Axon’s widespread reach in police tech means that if the company decides to implement face recognition, it could have sweeping, rapid effects. “If and when they want to do it, that could happen quite fast,” cautions Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn. “It would really be a software update away to add that capability.”"
"“Axon also makes tasers, so you could imagine drones being equipped with tasers or with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weaponry,” said Harlan Yu, the executive director of Upturn, a policy nonprofit that works on social justice and technology issues."