Police body cameras are all the rage lately. Al Sharpton wants them used to monitor the activities of cops. Ann Coulter wants them used to “shut down” Al Sharpton. The White House wants them because, well, they’re a way to look both “tough on police violence” and “tough on crime” by spending $263 million on new law enforcement technology.
When Al Sharpton, Ann Coulter and the president of the United States agree on anything, my immediate, visceral reaction is extreme skepticism. In this case, the known facts support that skepticism.
It’s exceedingly unlikely that widespread use of police body cameras would reduce the incidence or severity of unjustified police violence. We’ve already seen the results of numerous technology “solutions” to that problem.
The introduction of mace and tasers to police weapons inventories encouraged a hair-trigger attitude toward encounters with “suspects” (“suspect” being law-enforcement-ese for “anyone who isn’t a cop”). Their supposed non-lethality made it safer to substitute violent action for peaceful talk.
The introduction of military weaponry and vehicles to policing hasn’t produced de-escalation either. Quite the opposite, in fact — now we get to watch small-town police departments stage frequent re-enactments of the Nazi occupation of Paris in towns across America.
And police car “dash cams?” That’s obviously the most direct comparison. But the dash cam always seems to malfunction, or the police department mysteriously loses its output, when a credible claim of abusive police behavior arises.
On the other hand, it’s absolutely certain that widespread use of police body cameras would increase the scope and efficacy of an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state.
The White House proposal calls for an initial rollout of 50,000 cameras. Does anyone doubt that the output of those cameras would be kept, copied, cross-referenced and analyzed against law enforcement databases (including but not limited to facial recognition databases) on a continuing basis?
Assuming a camera attaches to a particular officer with an eight hour shift (rather than being passed around at shift changes for 24-hour use), that’s 400,000 hours per day of random warrantless searches to be continuously mined for probable cause to investigate and arrest people. Even George Orwell didn’t go so far as to have 1984’s Thought Police carry portable cameras everywhere they went!
Video technology is certainly part of the solution to police violence, but that solution should remain in the hands of regular people, not the state. More and more of us every day come into possession of the ability to record video on the spot, while instantly porting it to Internet storage so that it can’t be destroyed at the scene or tampered with after the fact. Cops need to be on cameras they don’t control.
But part of the solution is still just part of the solution. Even when cameras catch violent, abusive, criminal cops in action — as, for example, when business security cameras filmed Fullerton, California police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli beating homeless man Kelly Thomas to death in 2011 — it’s incredibly hard to get prosecutions and even harder to get convictions.
Ubiquitous video monitoring of state actors by regular people is a start. But the only real way to guarantee and end to police violence is to bring an end to state “law enforcement” — in fact, to the state itself.
Thomas L. Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society.