The day will come when police officers across the country, from tiny towns to big cities, will be equipped with video cameras that document their interactions with the public.
There are no numbers on how many police departments are adopting the surveillance devices, but it’s growing. In September, New York City, responding to a 2013 judge’s ruling that police were using stop-and-frisk tactics that targeted minorities, became the largest when it rolled out the cameras.
In response to a string of high profile incidents across the country where a citizen died at the hands of law enforcement officers under ambiguous circumstances, police and civil liberties advocates alike have warmed to the technology.
Proponents of the cameras expect the cameras to forever transform interactions between the police and the public for the better. Police and citizens alike, proponents argue, will be on their best behavior if they know they’re being recorded. Any sort of disputes over who did what will easily be resolved, and trials for some offenses, such as resisting arrest or disorderly conduct will fade away.
But it’s not clear if the hype over the cameras is really worth believing. The cameras indeed have the potential to bring more accountability and civility to police work, but there’s no guarantee that they will. There’s also the real possibility that surveillance devices could also create new problems.
So if a cop is caught beating someone and it’s caught on tape, there will be some serious disciplinary consequences for that officer; right? Maybe not. Remember the Rodney King beating?
In 1991, Los Angeles police pulled over King and brutally beat him on the side of the road. The entire incident was caught on tape by a bystander and later broadcast on national television. But despite clear visual evidence of police beating the hell out of King, a jury acquitted three of the officers and declared a mistrial for the fourth.
More recently, in Albuquerque, footage emerged from a police body camera that showed an officer shooting a homeless man.
Although you can go to YouTube and see a video of a cop shooting a man who was clearly outgunned and outnumbered, the officers haven’t been charged.
So even if you have a video of the cops kicking the crap out of you, you might still need a good lawyer to see any results.
Or the police might just forget to turn them on.
In September, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that a court-appointed police monitor found that officers weren’t properly activating cameras during use-of-force incidents. The cameras were issued to officers earlier this spring, but the monitor found that police only turned them on for 34 percent of incidents that involved the use of force.
Sometimes these use-of-force incidents can get deadly. In August, a New Orleans officer shot a man in the head. Before firing the shot, she turned her camera off. New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas called the incident a “snafu.”
In Daytona Beach, Florida, an officer admitted to turning off his body camera during a tumultuous altercation that left a woman without teeth and in the hospital, reports Clickorlando.com. According to the report, officers saw a woman eating a bag of cocaine. During her take down, officers kicked her in the head and put a flashlight in her mouth.
One of the cops admitted to turning off the camera, and the woman filed an excessive force complaint. The cops are out of a job and the woman they beat up got her charges dropped, so she essentially got away with eating a bag of cocaine (if you don’t count having her teeth knocked out). However, in this incident, the cop admitted to turning off the camera, which likely won’t happen in every case.
Cool cops do exist. You just don’t here about them as much as the bad ones.
Remember that time the cops found you stumbling around drunk and instead of taking you to the drunk tank, they told you just to go to the IHOP up the street and sober up? Or that time the cops told you to flush your bag of weed down the toilet instead of taking you to jail? Well, if cops are recording every interaction with the public, expect to get more tickets.
Research conducted in Mesa, Arizona confirmed that cops will be more inclined to sweat the petty things if they are constantly being recorded. Researchers compared the behavior of 50 officers wearing cameras with 50 that weren’t. The ones with the cameras wrote significantly more tickets.
A much-referenced study conducted in Rialto, California (they city where Rodney King coincidentally died) found that police body cameras reduced use-of-force incidents by half and reduced citizen complaints 10-fold. Similar research in U.K. found similar conclusions.
However, a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice that examined the evidence in favor of body cameras concluded: “Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police.” Also, it’s worth noting that Taser, a manufacturer of body cameras, had a hand in the Rialto study.
We are already becoming a society where everything is recorded, either by a surveillance camera or people’s cellphones. Soon you can add the cops to the list of people recording you as well. These recordings could become the foundation for a modern police state. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for departments to limit the retention of footage captured by cameras to just a few weeks so that the government does not begin amassing video of every move everyone makes in public.
And who says this will stop with the police? Miami Beach may already be experiencing mission creep with the cameras. The Guardian reports that the city is looking into requiring meter maids, code enforcement officers, city fire inspectors, building inspectors and police officers to wear body cameras.