We’re concerned that in the rush to support the communities who face oppressive policing practices, during the pivotal moment when these issues are at the center of a national conversation, the problems of body cams are being glossed over. Even the researchers behind the most oft-cited study demonstrating the efficacy of body cams are skeptical about the generalizability of its results or the net benefits to community policing. They emphasize that more empirical research is needed to determine what the impact of body cameras are to policing.
Most importantly, we need assessment, research-driven implementations, and mechanisms that will allow us to stop going down this path if it is not enabling accountability or improving the well-being of communities of color.
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Many communities rightfully want police and governments to be held accountable for brutal encounters between men of color and the officers who police them. Because the police-brutality incidents that have been caught on camera prompted widespread protests and community engagement, advocates hope that the mandatory collection of on-the-job footage will provide the evidence of police brutality that these communities need to prove their experience to the wider world—evidence that has often been missing in the past, and that is necessary to galvanize action to curb abuses or simply enable prosecution. Politicians and advocates hope that the mere existence of cameras may drive police officers to think twice before using force; in any case, advocates hope that camera evidence will make it easier to find and punish abuses that do occur. Journalists and the public simply want more transparency about policing practices. To get there, they want material evidence.
The police force also wants accountability. Officers want the video to exonerate them from false complaints. Cities want to reduce how much they pay out in lawsuits to victims of police misconduct (New York City, which is self-insured, paid out nearly $1 billion in the last decade). Prosecutors are leery of the cameras because they think they’ll be stuck reviewing hours of new footage with each case, particularly to make sure they don’t withhold any exculpatory evidence from the defense. At the same time, they’ve seen the way that dash-cam footage can help them prosecute cases successfully.
The temptation of technology as an accountability tool is not new, but accountability is not done by technology. Accountability is achieved by people and systems using tools like technology as part of their bureaucratic processes. There is effectively a global consensus that body cameras are a good thing to have because everyone has a different idea of what they’re agreeing to, a different model of appropriate bureaucracy. The bureaucratic and political battles over policies of use, access, and retention are not yet resolved, and they are significant. Who gets to see the footage, and in what circumstances, will matter. The features and capabilities of the technology matter. What happens when the camera reveals more about what was in the officer’s scope than what they could physically see at the time, especially at night? Or when cameras get additional features, like heat sensors? Even on basic practical questions, such as whether and when officers or the public should see the footage, there is no consensus.