The PJ Tatler

Turns Out Police Body Cameras Weren't a Great Idea After All

As a national debate has persisted regarding law enforcement practices, fueled by controversies from Ferguson to New York, one quick fix has often been proposed. Place body cameras on police officers, the argument goes, and we’ll know the real story behind alleged abuse. Law enforcement critics support body cameras because they imagine the devices will increase officer accountability. Some law enforcement professionals support body cameras because they believe objective documentation will ward off frivolous complaints.

Neither camp has thought the implementation of police body cameras through, and now we’re beginning to see some of the unintended consequences. Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota have come together to petition the legislature to restrict access to footage recorded on body cameras. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Calls for restricting the release of footage is the newest tension as the tiny cameras become more prevalent around the state, creating new questions about storing the data and when the footage should be made public.

“Body-worn cameras raise privacy concerns that have not to date been addressed” by the Legislature, read the petition, prepared by Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell.

The petition said the technology can sometimes record intimate moments with the public that do not advance law enforcement. “The privacy interests under these circumstances should prevail over the public’s hunger for sensationalism or gossip,” the petitioners said.

In a report released earlier this year, a group cited Minneapolis police, who released footage depicting a woman’s dead body after a public records request, provoking a public debate on privacy.

Such a restriction would open Pandora’s box. Consider the conflict of interest. If the goal of police body cameras is accountability, you can’t have government deciding arbitrarily when the video should be public or not. To avoid shenanigans, all the video would need to be public. On the other hand, as these Minnesota agencies and many in the public are beginning to understand, you can’t make all the video public without violating the privacy of anyone with whom law enforcement comes into contact.

Next: Body cameras represent the biggest expansion of the surveillance state in history…

paramedic police

Imagine that one of your family members had a medical emergency at home. The police arrive as part of a routine response. Their body cameras record the interior of your home, the intimate details of the incident, and the identities of everyone involved. That information is now public. Obviously, that’s not an acceptable scenario. Yet there is no practical way to balance these concerns. You will have accountability or privacy. You won’t get both.

That’s why Minnesota state senator Branden Petersen argues against police body cameras, in spite of once supporting them. He explained why he changed his mind in a Facebook post back in December:

The basic premise behind mandated police “body cams” is that if we had enough surveillance to protect us from the “bad guys” that we would be safer from threats and that if we allow this massive amount of video data to be collected we can prevent some tragedies from happening.

This is flawed reasoning. In fact, this is the reasoning that has lead to the unprecedented growth of the Surveillance State. The fact that the target subjects are law enforcement means very little in the legal or philosophical context.

Once you have accepted this reasoning you have accepted the notion that state surveillance, not the rule of law, can keep you safe. You have embraced the largest collection of video surveillance in our history for your “safety.”

With [Eric] Garner we saw that video evidence is not enough. Furthermore, do you really believe that this massive amount of new data won’t be plugged into the same system that perpetuates the current criminal justice disparities (not to mention the massive national security surveillance apparatus)? Of course it will. And when it does we will see a new level of distrust between the people who have been subject to these disparities and the state. Body cameras without meaningful policing reform will give poor and minority communities a new reason to avoid law enforcement all-together.

The problem won’t be confined to minority communities or those who currently distrust law enforcement. Everyone living in a jurisdiction with police body cameras must take that fact into consideration before calling for police assistance. Do I want this videotaped? Do I want my home, my place of business, my children, my anything to become a permanent visual record owned by the state?