Five Lessons From the Rise of Bodycams

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 28, 2016

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.

1. Don’t rush to embrace the next surveillance technology if we don’t have a clear idea of how police will actually use it. Any technology that enables the mass collection, storage, and reuse of information can easily become a tool of police surveillance, even if it begins as one of police transparency.

Though some police departments had already adopted body cameras, 2014 was a breakthrough year for the technology. When a grand jury declined to charge the Ferguson, Missouri, officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, his family calledfor “every police officer working the streets in this country” to wear a body camera. Faced with mounting calls to respond quickly to concerns about excessive force and racial bias, police departments saw in body cameras an obvious, visible response. The hope was that a camera on every officer would avoid disagreement about what had happened in violent encounters and deter misconduct.

That promise has been only partially fulfilled. Although body cameras will become standard police equipment everywhere, their adoption has become complicated. Not everyone wants to be recorded. Some police officers don’t want to wear them. Others can fail to turn them on, or have their cameras fall off and fail to record. Whether the public can see the video, depends on what state law says, how police interpret that law, and what their own guidelines say, if they say anything. The resulting video itself can be intentionally altered or deleted.

Read the full piece at Slate