An insightful look into police use of digital technology – Big thanks to Susan Crawford for allowing me to be a part of it!
Body-worn police cameras are a hot topic lately. Several highly-publicized incidents recently have led to a wave of anti-police protests and rhetoric. In turn, jurisdictions have scrambled to implement use of the technology or to expand their existing programs. Manufacturer orders have soared, with large cities that had been slow to adopt the cameras, like Los Angeles and New York, finally joining the ever-growing number of police agencies that use them.
The benefits for police are profound. Body-worn cameras aid in officer safety, police and civilian accountability, and enhance evidence gathering and prosecutions – to name a few. Sure, they come at a cost – both financial and logistical, but officers and department heads far and wide are enjoying these benefits. For many, they are seen as a natural progression from other tools that have been commonplace for some time. In-vehicle camera systems have aided law enforcement for decades. A body-worn option is therefore a logical enhancement to an existing method. While the newer technology confronts us with additional challenges like coordinating evidence retention, storage, backup, and security concerns, and policy changes – these challenges are far from insurmountable.
But what happens after the cameras are in widespread use? Those in public service are wise enough to understand that an enhanced view of police encounters will hardly pacify the harshest and loudest of police opponents. Criticisms that once centered on why agencies were slow to use body-cams will only move toward any number of reasons that such cameras failed to tell the full story in favor of a particular agenda. While the future of law enforcement is likely to involve more video technology, the future will also include a great deal of debate about its use. Those who see the cameras as a boon for police accountability, for example, are at the same time wary of their intrusiveness on the public. Thinking forward, it’s easy to imagine the questions that will continue to arise. At what point for example, will one camera be sufficient? How long before persistent critics suggest multiple viewing angles, or demand that camera activation be tied electronically to other officer actions, such as un-holstering a firearm, or using a Taser? Police body cameras will hardly stymie the most vocal opponents.
Effective law enforcement will always include disagreements about police encounters with the public, and personal body camera footage will not likely diminish this. Agencies should anticipate a substantial number of new questions and accusations related to body-cams. Police leaders can mitigate this with careful research, policy planning, and collaboration with government and community partners at all levels.
Body-worn cameras certainly have enough positive attributes to warrant an agency’s careful and individual consideration. However, given that a segment of the population will never be satisfied with the level of visibility and accountability they provide, jurisdictions must avoid knee-jerk reactions that effect body-worn video implementation and policy. Lawmakers and police agencies need to prudently consider privacy concerns, policies regarding the availability of video recordings, and internal policies concerning their use (including related disciplinary matters). Only then can we be reasonably confident that the adoption of this technology is being done with appropriate research and planning, rather than in an attempt to appease the inappeasable.
This post originally appeared on PoliceAcademyU.com