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.