The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School is a leader in the study of the law and policy around the Internet and other emerging technologies.
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.
"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."
"“We have it being used in unaccountable ways and with no regulation,” said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit civil rights organization that signed the A.C.L.U.’s letter to Amazon."
"Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, which monitors police agencies' body camera policies and is one of the letter's signatories, said the groups felt it important to "draw a bright ethical line" around real-time facial recognition body cameras. He also said the groups were troubled by the lack of representation on the ethics board of communities, particularly those made up of racial minorities, that are subject to intense police scrutiny.
"Just because real-time face recognition might be technologically feasible to do doesn’t mean they should," Yu said."
"But what happens if the technology makes a mistake? "It's a recipe for tragedy," said Harlan Yu, executive director for Upturn, a technology and social justice non-profit. He's worried that the same technology could misidentify innocent civilians as suspects and perpetuate police brutality.
"Body-worn cameras are supposed to be tools for transparency and accountability," he said. "But facial recognition could eventually turn these body cameras into tools for mass surveillance.""
"For Harlan Yu, though, these selective releases are not enough. Yu works for Upturn, which studies how technology affects social justice and civil rights. He says chiefs shouldn’t get to pick and choose which footage gets released; they should follow clear and consistent policies.
"One of the most significant challenges in releasing body-camera recordings is balancing privacy with transparency, said Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit focused on technology and public policy.
That balance can be facilitated when police departments craft their policies after discussions with the community they serve.
“Different communities have different expectations,” Yu said."
"“Departments often justify unrestricted footage review policies by arguing that it allows officers to write more accurate reports, but in our view, these policies just create an illusion of accuracy,” Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, said in a conference call after the report was released."
"Harlan Yu is executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit research organization focused on technology and public policy. He said viewing the body camera footage would likely be upsetting for White.
Yu said having body camera footage is an important step forward, but the footage should be released.
“This is the reason why body worn cameras have been adopted across the country is to provide more transparency and accountability to this type of situation,” Yu said."