A strange coalition has formed around the police officer-worn body camera.

Their ubiquitous adoption is the sole policy change requested by the family of Michael Brown, the teenager who was fatally shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Police departments, too, hail body cameras, saying that they will shield officers from false claims of wrongdoing. Endorsed by law enforcement agencies, police reformists, and equipment vendors, body cameras seem to promise accountability at a time when police power seems untouchable.

Faced with cultural and political issues that can seem intractable, the U.S. has suddenly and rapidly adopted the little lenses and, with them, a new surveillance regime. President Obama earlier this week announced $263 million in funding to purchase 50,000 body cameras for local police agencies.

As a Baltimore civil litigator told the Washington Post on Wednesday: “The body camera is here to stay.”

But a debate very similar to the one around body cameras has happened before. Two decades ago, law enforcement agencies—and activists hoping to change them—argued about a different kind of mass video surveillance. That technology was not body cameras but in-car dashboard cameras, tape recorders that filmed the action in front of the car and preserved the audio of an officer’s interactions with citizens.

As in today’s debate, in-car cameras found support from both police chiefs and police reformists. Law enforcement claimed video evidence would protect cops from post hoc citizen grievances, while reformists claimed that surveilling cops would reduce racial profiling.

At the end of the 1990s, a combination of those arguments helped secure federal and private funding to purchase in-car cameras en masse. Dash cams are now everywhere. The most recent federal data, from 2007, states that 67 percent of state or local police departments had at least some squad cars with cameras, and experts say that they’ve only become more popular since.

The body camera debate now, in other words, is where the dash-cam debate was 15 years ago. We can look back at the promises that dash-cam advocates made and see where they fell short—we can, in a limited way, predict the future from the past. And while history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, understanding what was supposed to happen with dash cams—and what actually did—takes us out of the the fanciful future of shining screens and dystopian omniscience and puts us in our own—where cops get tired, camera lenses get scummy, and it’s harder to fix things than it is to buy them.

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1. The adoption of body cameras will not all happen at once.

“I was skeptical of the cameras at first,” Michael Creamer, the chief deputy of the Franklin County Sheriff’s office in Ohio, told a New York Times reporter. “We’re not in the movie business. But they’ve been fantastic for us.”

He was speaking in April 1990 about the power of dashboard-mounted, in-car cameras. During a six-month test run, he boasted, all 17 people who had been arrested for drunk driving pleaded guilty because their arrests were caught on film. (Most people who get arrested for drunk driving, the Times added, plead not guilty because of the crime’s “severe fines and jail terms.”)

“We’ll show the judge, the jury, and the courtroom how they really looked driving on the wrong side, falling down by their car, unable to walk a straight line or recite the alphabet,” Creamer said. “It’s very hard to rebut that kind of testimony.”

With such a strong endorsement, it seems like a no-brainer for the government—at the local, state, or federal level—to immediately pitch in and finish purchasing cameras. Creamer mused to the Times that he wanted cameras in every car in his fleet.

But Franklin County had never purchased those first, test-run cameras. In fact, no government agency had purchased them. Creamer’s dash-cams came from Aetna Life and Casualty, the private insurance company. Aetna was one of a number of insurance firms at the time that hoped to reduce the drunk-driving-related injuries—and their attendant medical bills—by making enforcement of the law much more consistent and severe. A prime way it could accomplish this? Ensuring that drivers arrested for DUIs could be prosecuted for them.

In the United States, in-car cameras have been purchased in two big waves historically. Creamer’s cameras—and those underwritten by Aetna—were part of the first wave, during the 1980s. The cameras in Franklin County weren’t installed to monitor cops or citizens, but to solve a basic enforcement problem: Without hard photographic evidence, it was difficult to prosecute drunk drivers. So insurance companies and the recently formed group Mothers Against Drunk Driving shelled out for police in-car cameras.

The second wave began during the 90s. Additional financial support in that wave came from the DEA, which partnered with local agencies to catch drug trafficking on interstate highways. Cameras, and especially microphones worn by cops, could document suspects consenting to their car being searched—something juries often had a hard time believing if police then found guns or drugs.

But even with DEA assistance, less than 40 percent of police departments had even some cars with dash cams. The second wave could only kick into gear once a certain coalition emerged—a political partnership that will look familiar to contemporary eyes. More on that soon.

2. Most of the footage captured by body cams will be boring.

Albert J. Meehan chairs the sociology department at Oakland University in Michigan. He’s the son and grandson of police officers, and he’s been doing field research with police departments since the 1970s.

About 10 years ago, he got access to a nearby police department’s video archive and plowed through it with an assistant. Instead of just focusing on police-citizen encounters, he watched entire day-long shifts. It was not thrilling work.

“If you look at the camera footage for eight hours, it’s pretty damn boring,” he told me.

Meehan saw routine traffic stops, the car driving around and stopping for food, the officers giving out parking tickets. And while he gained an understanding of individual officers’ “style of policing and the community context,” it came slowly. But he also said the tape helped him understand the contour of an officer’s day, and where a bad encounter with citizens came from. Something would annoy an officer in the morning, Meehan said, and you could hear him or her stew on it through the rest of the day.

3. The cameras will record far more than just video.

In fact, they already do. In-car cameras which exist right now record data and detail about the world far beyond light and sound.

If a suspect throws something out of a car while being chased by police, for instance, officers can press a button on their dash cam to mark the area in GPS. After the pursuit ends, cops can return to the location to see if the suspect threw out a gun, drugs, or some piece of evidence.

They can also record whether the officer had begun braking—an important detail if the car gets into a crash. In short, the cameras preserve information about the car’s location and state relevant to the image but more complete than it.

And so it would be with cop body cameras. Even if today’s models record only audio and video, future body cams will handle all sorts of other information. The video recording will exist almost as a heads-up display on which to show more useful data: GPS-determined location, weather, speed of movement, and whether a cop had taken his gun or baton out of its holster.

4. The cameras will change how police officers see the world.

As with body cameras, the federal government invested millions of dollars in in-car cameras without really knowing if they worked.

“We have not performed any research or funded any specific research within the Department of Justice, and I have undertaken a review of social science literature with respect to the use of audio-visual and I have not seen any significant statistical research,” U.S. assistant attorney general Viet Dinh confessed to Congress in 2001. It was not until the mid-2000s that the DOJ researched whether its investment had succeeded, commissioning the International Association of the Chiefs of Police (IACP) to report on how departments were finding the technology.

Mike Fergus is a manager at the IACP and was one of that report’s principal investigators. In his team’s early interviews, he told me, police officers reported something funny: that their attention to detail was slipping. Normally they’d rely on their memory to fill out certain details of traffic stops, but now they would listen to the audio recording or play the tape. Where cops felt they once had acute memories, they now needed to see what the record said.

5. The body camera will change how departments see the world, too. Unless there are rules against it, departments will use it to find subjects.

This isn’t a prediction, in fact: This has already started happening.

“If we didn’t arrest you that night, if we didn’t arrest you later in the week, we’re certainly going to find you and arrest you,” an Oakland, California, police spokeswoman told reporters last week. That department made more than 200 arrests during Ferguson-related protests Thanksgiving week, and now it plans to make more.

How? Reports ABC 7 in the Bay Area:

Police say their investigation is just beginning as they continue to review police body cameras and other video sources.

​Body cameras are already being used to find suspects after the fact. New technology will only make this easier. And unlike cumbersome old systems that required police departments to store VHS tapes of dash cams, new systems store officer footage, dispatcher alerts, and 911 calls together.

Experts talk of how much easier it is now to link incidents into one story, tracking an event from call to dispatch to first response to multiple cops’s arrival.​ Advances in facial-recognition software and algorithmic video monitoring make after-the-fact arrests even likelier.

6. But it will also become entertainment. Cops will trade video like Pokemon cards, and we’ll watch them too.

Both Fergus and Meehan noted that the rise of filming officers matched a rise in popular broadcast of police film. Fergus said it was “chicken or the egg” whether dash cams or the TV show Cops came first. And both mentioned episodes of officers taking home footage from their own in-car cameras.

Fergus talked of how many cops liked to learn from their own tapes. Officers would watch VHS tapes after their shifts and replay incidents throughout the day, to learn how they could do better.

One New York state trooper, Fergus said, would regularly replay video of his own stops at his home, to try to notice and correct mistakes in his work. One night, that trooper’s school-age daughter asked him why a truck had sailed by so close to him on the highway. Because he was focused so intently on interacting with drivers, he hadn’t realized he was regularly standing in a moving traffic lane.

But tapes were used for far more than learning, said Meehan. As in-car cameras began to proliferate in the late 1990s, he said that he noticed cops would begin to hold onto audio and video recordings of their stops. But not just their own: Officers were building personal libraries of notable audio and video recordings. To Meehan, the sociologist, police officers were augmenting what had been a mostly unwritten cop culture, full of dishy stories of terrible stops, with AV.

“Officers were using technology to supplement their stories, and reinforcing certain stereotypes about police,” Meehan told me. He found cops who had built libraries of tapes that depicted their work as dangerous, funny, or horror-filled. But he also found cops whose libraries “reinforced negative stereotypes” about policing.

That is: Their libraries were racist. “There was an officer holding dispatch tapes from the 1967 Detroit riots,” Meehan told me. “I thought that was notable. This was the late 1990s, so those tapes had floated around for 30 years.”

Video—especially digital video—is slippery. If cops have body cams, they’ll get personal access to the videos they record. And then they can view them whenever they want.

7. Getting cops to actually use the cameras will be hard.

When Meehan got access to a police department’s VHS archive, he found something striking: “Close to a quarter were degaussed.”

That is, 23 percent of the tapes were blank or staticky.

To the department’s sergeants and police chief, he said, “this was not really a surprise.” While some police departments lock their video-evidence room, many leave them unlocked. Degaussing machines are often available in these unlocked rooms too. (As to whether the tapes were blank because of equipment failures, his study noted that “few malfunctions were reported in the video logs.”)

“They don’t want to know,” he said of supervisors. “They have what I call a studied inattentiveness.”

Meehan spoke of a complicated cat-and-mouse game among equipment designers, beat cops, and the supervisors who manage them. Many officers resent in-car cameras, feeling that they reveal a lack of trust in officers, and didn’t use them. So dash-cam designers programmed the cameras to turn on automatically as soon as a patrol car’s emergency lights went on.

But cops still got to decide whether to turn on the microphone or not.

As Meehan and two other sociologists wrote:

In terms of actual microphone use, the microphone was turned off 95 percent of the time, with partial or complete audio the other five percent of the time. This demonstrates the limited application that audio recordings might have on examinations of issues such as consent searches. […] The researchers found that officers selectively turn on microphones at certain parts of the encounter, and turn them off during other parts of an encounter.

“These technologies try to design and decrease opportunities for human resistance,” Meehan told me Wednesday. “But typically police departments still provide an off-switch.”

Or, if not an off-switch, they provide an analog one. Many dash-cams are on swivels. When cops pull someone over, they’re instructed to swivel the camera so it faces the driver.

“I can tell you from looking at thousands of hours of tape: Officers aren’t swiveling their cams when they make a traffic stop," said Meehan. “Sometimes they’ll pull over in an odd direction for safety reasons, but won’t swivel. It’s understood they’ll swivel it when it serves their purpose.”

This kind of dance between technologies trying to hold cops accountable and cops themselves has been going on for centuries, Meehan says. Back when cops on patrol had to pull certain levers to signify they had walked their beat, they’d stay in the station and pay just one cop to go out and pull levers for them. Or, huddling inside during a cold night, they’d place their metal badges by the window so they stayed cold. When the sergeant touched their badges in the morning, it would have seemed like they had spent a chilly night outside.

And when the tapes were allowed to work, Fergus said, they revealed many things about the cops. Reviewing tape later, he said sergeants “could tell if an officer had problems in his personal life because it would show up in their work.”

8. Storage will be a headache.

A video evidence technician works in the
Prince George’s County VHS locker. (IACP)

Many police departments aren’t ready to handle the thousands of hours of digital video—and accompanying metadata—body cameras will generate. Fergus remembered a sight his investigative team encountered: the Prince George’s County video archive in Maryland, where the archivist was surrounded by piles and piles of tapes. Some were in green boxes—meaning they were run-of-the-mill footage and could be discarded after two years—and some were in red boxes, meaning they were evidence relevant to an investigation.

In some ways, digital video has made storage less burdensome. But especially for large fleets, body cameras will generate thousands of hours of footage every day. Storing those files for years—or longer, depending on local records laws—will be exceptionally costly.

9. They won’t reduce certain types of racist policing.

As with body cameras, in-car cameras were supported by an unusual alliance.

When a government report revealed that most assaults on police officers happened while he or she was on uniformed patrol, departments turned to dash cams. As one of the authors of the IACP report said, in-car cameras could speak for officers when they couldn’t speak for themselves.

But in-car cameras were also seen as a way to stop—or, at least, document—police racial profiling. Cops would act differently, advocates claimed, when they knew they were being monitored. With in-car cameras and audio recordings, the same officer’s interactions with white and black drivers could be directly compared. This case was so strong that when Seattle tried to reduce profiling in the early 2000s, its mayor proposed that officers should fill out a race-based survey after every traffic stop—and also be monitored by dash cams.

Sometimes, in-car cameras were seen as a way to avoid that kind of expensive data-collection in the first place. According to a 2003 Northeastern University report, Texas, Minnesota, and Missouri all allow for in-car cameras to function “in lieu of or in addition to collecting data” about racial profiling. That is, if police departments installed dash cams, they didn’t need to go through the costly work of monitoring racial profiling statistically.

Backed by this unlikely alliance of activists and law-enforcement agencies, support for in-car cameras surged. So did funding. From 2000 to 2004, the DOJ handed out $21 million in grants to state and local agencies so they could purchase their own in-car cameras. At the beginning of that period, only 11 percent of state police cars had in-car cams. By 2004, 72 percent of them did. The grants ultimately put dash cams in cars in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

This was the second wave of dash-cam adoption. In 2000, while the first grants were being handed out, only 40 percent of sheriff’s offices had dash cams. Three years later, that percentage had jumped by 18 points. By 2007, it had increased by nine more—such that 67 percent of sheriffs had in-car cameras.

But did all that investment stem racial profiling?

I can find no large-scale national or state studies of the effect of in-car cameras on racial profiling. But anecdotal evidence and smaller studies suggest the answer is no.

In one of his studies, Meehan examined a suburban police force whose largely white municipality bordered a heavily black area. Officers in that force still pulled over black drivers at a rate two to three times what the population would predict. Racial profiling, in other words, was rampant—in a force that had installed dash cams five years prior.

In Seattle, too, racial profiling remains a problem. Almost a decade after that city installed in-car cameras, the Department of Justice found “routine and widespread use of excessive force by officers” and racially biased policing. It mandated stronger controls on use of force, many of which are now being implemented. Though it's not clear how far they’ll get. In August, 100 Seattle police officers sued the DOJ, calling the new policies “mechanical” and burdensome.

10. Just because a public record is made doesn't mean the public will ever see it.

As any crime reporter can tell you, obtaining public records from the police can be an enormous challenge. Many departments lack the resources necessary to fulfill such requests—which, conveniently, makes a great excuse for the departments that have have something to hide.


Shirley Li contributed reporting.