An earlier version of this article was published at the Huffington Post
In the United States, Ferguson made us realize the importance of transparency and further need to hold police accountable and stop police brutality. Charlotte taught us new lessons about how a city police chief should not have the authority to make a decision on whether or not to release bodycam footage. And yet, a Cambridge University study shows the use of bodycams in the United Kingdom have led to a 90 percent drop in complaints. It is in the general interest of the entire public to practice true and unbiased transparency. Technology alone, however, cannot provide all the answers. Policy regulating the use of this technology is imperative.
Researchers believe that police body cameras have effectively reduced non-compliance amongst officers regarding their procedures, and even criminals and ordinary citizens are thinking twice about their behavior in the presence of police officers. This study covered various areas UK, observing that the sheer use of cameras have had a significant effect in improving relations in such tense situations.
The issue at hand
Keith Scott was shot dead by a police officer in Charlotte while his wife was recording the scene with her mobile device. She has released her mobile phone’s footage. The police, however, took too long to budge on releasing bodycam footage of the scene. The policy used in Charlotte permits the police chief to decide if access to recorded audio/video footage revealing a police officer firing a weapon can be provided to an individual filing a complaint against the police. Where’s the transparency in that? Who is a police chief to decide that the public can have access only to his/her own “assessment” of valuable audio/video recording of a very serious and highly provocative encounter affecting all of our society?
An officer may have a good or bad day at work. This shouldn’t be the index based on which we decide to release such important information or not. In fact, the footage captured on an officer’s bad day is exactly what is needed to provide transparency and allow the necessary decision-makings afterwards. The public has the right to know because citizens are paying taxes, and their taxes are funding the millions being used on police body cameras.
Technology is made available to support the public’s benefit, not allow authorities deprive the public they are elected to serve of the very important data needed to make crucial decisions. Viewpoints differ on the correct use and actual purpose of body cams, with many seeking to collect criminal evidence through this medium, and others seeing it simply as a tool on a mission to allow police accountability. This is where the all-important issue of policy comes into play. The thin line differentiating how tools are used for transparency or surveillance is policy.
We do, however, have to respect the fact that different cities have different legitimate concerns. For instance, there are cases where body cam video footage involves an individual’s home. Police departments also seek the ability to protect their officers from public discretion prior to receiving the due process before a judge. Body worn cameras could allow police to get extra evidence on suspects and a better understanding of their behavior. They may also deter criminals from shooting police officers. For some people, the main function of bodycams is to stop police brutality, which given numerous cases of police killing innocent people is particularly important. Our perceptions on the pros and cons of police body cameras are linked to our expectations and preferences about their use and purpose.
More troubling matters
Yet in circumstances that a city like Charlotte is already under a state of emergency, the release of such sensitive footage can lead to a further discharge of public anger. And this is unwanted addition to the already escalating amount of troubles. This is especially true when the highly controversial issue of race is involved, for say, a white officer opening fire on a innocent black young man. The police should be provided some authority to decide, along with other legitimate officials, if the release of such footage would spark public outrage and endanger public interests. However, this authority must not be tampered and abused to such an extent that the public begins to lose faith and actually questions such decisions.
The UK was also troubled after the unfortunate death of Dalian Atkinson, a former football star for Aston Villa, after being Tasered by the police, instigating more calls for the use of bodycams in the police force and investigate police racism.
We as members of the public also bear responsibility on this matter. We should be mature and wise enough to understand that at times when such footage is vague, racial viewpoints, political stances and the perception of what we “want” to see should not mislead our judgement in reviewing such footage. The police should also understand the importance of practicing transparency, and how such measures actually help gain the trust and respect of the very people they are on duty to protect.
The irony is that city officials cite transparency as the very reason to invest in policies of installing body cams on police officers. Thus, their loyalty will of course be put to the test at sensitive times, and not routine days when officers go on with carrying out their duties. Here lies the necessity of proper policy to hold law enforcement officials responsible for remaining loyal to the policy of transparency. If the public is paying the police to protect them, and also paying for such technological tools to help police enhance their safety and security, they should enjoy the right to have access to all the necessary information at such critical times of decision making.
Watch this video: Can Body Cameras End Police Brutality?:
Police body cameras pros and cons
In order to help make up your mind about the big question in our debate here you can find a list of the most important benefits and problems of police body cameras:
- Transparency and accountability: bodycams recordings provide extra evidence to understand the behavior and attitude of suspects and police officers. These footage could be used in court and for internal investigation purposes.These cameras may help undertake disciplinary action against police officers who shoot or utilize excessive force against innocent people
- Satisfy a popular claim: in the US a petition with more than 100,000 signatures requested that police officers should record their interactions with the public. In the UK and other countries there have been pressures to implement and regulate body worn cameras within police forces too
- Training purposes: the footage of police body cameras can be used for the purpose of training of new officers in police academies. It can be a way to show what are the real situation they will face in the streets as well as good an bad practices
- Deterrence: criminals may think it twice before attacking police officers if they know that they all wear bodycams. The recording could be used as evidence against them. Likewise body cameras can contribute to stop police brutality and police killings. Officers are less likely going to engage into abusive behavior and racial profiling may be prevented. Police officers may have an extra incentive to to their work properly
- They can be turned off: the police body cameras may be broken, turned off or blinded, intentionally or unintentionally. This means that the evidence collected by them may be incomplete or sometimes “selected.” This means that officers engaging in unlawful action may find ways to avoid incriminating footage
- Mass surveillance and privacy: some critics, including many within the Black Lives Matter movement, oppose the use of body cameras because they consider them a tool to further criminalize and target specific communities. Footage can be used in ways to reinforce certain stereotypes and preconceptions. Moreover, the footage of police body cameras may affect people’s privacy and honor. For instance, a video of police officers (wrongly) arresting an innocent person could compromise this person’s social life and career if it would reach the public
- Cybersecurity: the databases where police recordings are kept can become valuable targets for hackers.They could potentially retrieve sensible information that should not be public, compromising the image of many people and even creating anger against police. If footage including police brutality or malpractice are leaked to the media they could trigger a popular outcry and street violence
- Expensive: providing all police officers with body cameras and setting up all the logistics and software required to make the system work is expensive. It could be argued that there are other more effective ways to spend public funding
Watch this debate: Should police wear body cameras? Attention some of the images are graphic
Emerging questions: Are these cameras simply part of a plan for police surveillance and monitoring? Do you think that the elimination of police body cameras as the Black Lives Matter movement claim, would be the right approach? Should all footage be available for external examination? To what extent the police should be able to control access to the recording of their interactions with the public?