Breaking Down Body Cams
In the wake of police violence against unarmed victims, many police departments have either adopted or looking into adopting policies that require officers to wear a body cam. Thanks to their rise in popularity, the demand for the cams has risen so much that prices have been driven down dramatically, making them much more affordable for police departments. The media tends to tout the benefits of these cameras and they certainly offer a sense of security and accountability, but the policies surrounding them are fraught with complications. Today I will break down the issues for you, including the pros and cons, so that you can have a better understanding of how and why they are such a hot topic.
Transparency and Accountability
Body cams record interactions between officers and suspects, so they provide a new form of transparency that is irrefutable, or so the saying goes. Gone are the days of he-said-she-said - now we can see exactly what happened from the point of view of the officer. This is great because it provides transparency, which makes holding officers' misconduct accountable much easier. But on the flip side, it doesn't necessarily mean that officers will be held accountable - that still depends on other variables (like video quality, lighting, etc.), but accountability ultimately relies on the decisions of higher-ups, who may or may not be a part of the problem.
Plus, many body cams require the officer to enable the recording with the touch of a button - something that may not always happen (in fact, this happened earlier this month). This doesn't mean an officer plans to behave badly (although that could certainly happen), but oftentimes interactions with a potentially violent suspect occur quickly and the officer may not remember to turn on the camera. Habits are difficult to form, and so far, this isn't something officers are accustomed to incorporating into their daily routine.
This is where things get tricky. Releasing the footage to the public may enhance transparency and accountability, but at what cost? In all likelihood, footage of cops going out of their way to be helpful are not likely to go viral, meaning the public will be bombarded with a very one-sided view of officers' interactions. A lot of officers do a lot of good (here are some examples), but this isn't what the public wants to see, which means the demand for officer misconduct will ultimately drive media outlets to deliver it, which can result in inaccurate reporting.
Then there's the issue of privacy. State laws vary, but dash cam video is not automatically available to the public and there are bills to exclude body cam footage from the public record, including the Freedom of Information Act. Now, at first blush, you may be thinking, "Why? Why can't we see it? We have a right to!" but let's think about this for a minute. If a police officer is required to record every interaction, then privacy becomes a central issue. Say you're a woman who calls the police because you've been the victim of domestic abuse. Is the officer's response something you want recorded and made public? Chances are, it won't be, but because the issue of body cam footage and public dissemination is still a new issue, the future is uncertain. This is one of the things that policymakers have to address - how to balance personal privacy against public safety, while maintaining transparency and accountability.
Body cam prices have come down significantly due to the laws of supply and demand - as demand goes up, price goes down. Body cams are much less expensive, but doesn't that mean they are affordable? It depends on the police department. Large departments with a big operating budget may be able to afford it, as could very small departments. But what about those in the middle? There are a lot of departments that fall in between and, while I don't know much about their individual budgets, I imaging they are operating within certain budgetary constraints. Plus, some towns rely on the county sheriff, which likely has a different budget than a city department.
As you can see, body cams are not as simple as they seem to be. In fact, they pit deeply held values against each other (transparency vs. privacy), making it a contentious issue for policymakers. While there seems to be no doubt that body cams will become the norm, this new technology will require navigating some murky waters in order to implement it on a wide scale.