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What the Body Cameras Cannot See

Body cameras have been cast as a panacea for police brutality, but some experts are skeptical of their effectiveness.
A computer-generated rendering of a typical body-worn camera. (Illustration: Throwawaysixtynine/Wikimedia Commons)

A computer-generated rendering of a typical body-worn camera. (Illustration: Throwawaysixtynine/Wikimedia Commons)

Who’s watching whom—and what can they see?

When it comes to police-worn cameras, these questions don't yet have a consistent answer—and with the rush to implement the technology now well past the tipping point, those answers matter.

Over 30 states and the District of Columbia have now either introduced or passed legislation addressing body-worn cameras. Earlier this month, The President’s Task Force on 21 Century Policing released its final report with an entire pillar of recommendations around technology and social media and the Bureau of Justice Assistance released a National Body-Worn Camera Toolkit, an online clearinghouse for sharing information, resources, and research on “body-worn camera-related subjects.”

Against the backdrop of #BlackLivesMatter and now the #SayHerName campaign, the landscape of whose experiences are witnessed, named, and validated by the public has grown increasingly complex—and in the face of such complexity, cameras offer what appears to many to be an invitingly simple solution. But that purported simplicity may be deceiving; advocates on all sides are expressing concern about the risks of cameras and arguing against treating them like a panacea for the problems around race and policing in communities across America.

"What institutional and regulatory choices do we need to make now—before police cameras become the status quo?"

“With each of these developments, and as local and national developments unfold, myriad concerns are coming to light about the technology and the conditions for its deployment that will best serve public safety and safeguard our rights,” observed Open Technology Institute Fellow Seeta Peña Gangadharan at a recent event at the New America Foundation. Joined in conversation by Justin Ready, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Sarah Brayne, Brian K. Jordan, and Malkia Cyril, Gangadharan identified a key question facing advocates and policymakers alike: “What institutional and regulatory choices do we need to make now—before police cameras become the status quo?”

It’s critical that ask that question on the front end, said Brayne—a sociologist and researcher at Microsoft Research New England—because “once a new technology is rolled out in an institutional setting such as a police department, it’s really hard to scale back.” From her own research doing ride-alongs with the Los Angeles Police Department, Brayne speculated that cameras might have “unanticipated downstream consequences.” Police officers inclined to cut community members they know a little slack might no longer do so. Knowing they’ll be recorded might deter people with loved ones in precarious legal standing from calling the cops when they need help.

In times of social upheaval, “we do look to innovations, whether it’s policy innovations or technological innovations as a solution,” noted Ready, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University who has been in the field for the past few years studying the use of cameras by police in Mesa, Arizona. After following 100 officers for a year, 50 of whom wore cameras and 50 of whom did not, Ready had around 30,000 videos of police encounters with the Mesa community. He found that officers wearing cameras initiated about 15 percent more citizen contacts, conducted 10 percent fewer stop-and-frisks, and wrote 14 percent more tickets than the non-camera officers.

“We want to adopt [camera technology] to solve problems that happen disproportionately in minority communities. But we have to remember that over the long run there are costs,” Ready warned. “Any technology does both harm and good.” Ready’s remarks resonated with observations from Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “The fact is [that] video is powerful,” she said, but “we’re talking about inserting an unproven piece of technology into Jim Crow policing.”

“I don’t believe body-worn cameras are the answer, but I believe they’re inevitable,” Cyril continued, describing her encounters with protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore. “The solution that has been offered to them is body-worn cameras, but that doesn't mean that’s what they want. What they want is to feel safe.”

Whether or not cameras can truly foster a feeling of safety in communities is a paramount concern for Austin-Hillery and the Brennan Center for Justice, where she is director and counsel. “Body-worn cameras are supposed to provide accountability, transparency, and—let’s get down to it—truthfulness” in the pursuit of criminal justice, she said. But whether in Cleveland or Ferguson or elsewhere, “cameras are a part of the larger conversation [about justice] and will only be a part of a larger solution.” The ultimate goal, Austin-Hillery stressed, “has to be figuring out how we make our criminal justice system better for all of us”—citizens and police officers alike.

"Body-worn cameras are supposed to provide accountability, transparency, and—let’s get down to it—truthfulness" in the pursuit of criminal justice.

Jordan, chief of police at Howard University and a law enforcement veteran with over 30 years experience, agreed with Austin-Hillery: “The general premise of policing is to first be safe and second is to make people safe.” The now-infamous incidents involving Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott were all captured on video and all prompted different results from the communities in question, in part because “once that video is there, it’s still not going to be seen the same way by everybody.”

How cameras fit into programs of community policing was an open question among the panelists, as was who would have access to the potentially massive pool of raw data produced by them. “Community policing ... is about relationships. Cameras are about automation. Those are opposing things,” argued Cyril, who also underscored that “officers are community members.” For Jordan, cameras and community policing boil down to “what [communities] want from their police.” “The debate [over cameras] is necessary,” he concluded. “We have to work it down to the point that the police wearing the cameras buy into it and the communities being monitored buy into it.”

Consensus emerged around the need for further information-gathering and public engagement on all sides on the issue of cameras. Ready and Cyril both articulated an urgent need for further study and research, while Austin-Hillery cited a necessity for citizens to engage their lawmakers at multiple levels of government. We may look to the president for leadership on policing in the 21st century, she said, but “it’s that city council member in your local community who is making decisions that affect your lives on a daily basis.”

So what do we need to do before cameras become the status quo? For one thing, we need to remember that technology is inextricably bound together with its social context and human interaction. “Raw data does not always speak for itself,” reflected Brayne in comments that captured a major theme of the evening, “it requires interpretation.”

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.