Last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that the 7,000 officers of the LAPD will soon be wearing body cameras to record their interactions while on duty. Communities that have employed these cameras have reported significant decreases in the number of claims of police misconduct (reductions as impressive as 90%), and it is fair to assume those statistics represent both actual changes in officer behavior as well as a reduction in false claims of misconduct. The fact that the presence of body cameras can provide evidence that can protect both civilians and officers is a very attractive proposition; but the extent to which the videos captured should be made automatically available to the public via the Internet is a subject of debate in Los Angeles and other communities. While some citizens will argue a right to know in this regard, I generally agree with LA Police Chief Charlie Beck, who is quoted in the Times article thus:
“I think people misunderstand transparency as having everybody and all the public have access to everything. And it isn’t so much that as having the ability to have oversight by multiple entities outside of the Police Department. I think that’s the meaning of transparency. I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube.”
Indeed, in viewing both the social trends and the economics associated with social media, I believe the potential harm of broad distribution of police body camera video outweighs the benefits of doing so and could undermine the value of deploying the technology in the first place.
Privacy & Decency
As cited in the Times article, Chief Beck emphasizes that officers respond to a wide range of calls, like entering the homes of victims who have experienced horrible violations by all manner of perpetrators. So, I hope we can all agree that perhaps a woman who just called the cops because her husband beat her up should not become not free reality TV for us to ogle via social media. And domestic battery is relatively tame compared to the anthology of horrors that humans visit upon one another and to which police officers are often witness. More to the point, the volume of police encounters involving events that we have no business watching (let alone allowing some website to monetize) is far greater than the volume of encounters in which may see a need to scrutinize the conduct of the officers. And in cases in which such scrutiny is necessary, justice is likely to be best served if the related video remains sequestered during investigations and trials. By distributing all police body cam video to the public, we risk turning various forms of human suffering into a Circus Maximus that is more likely to serve our crass taste for ugly spectacle than it is to serve justice.
There are several good reasons why evidence in a case remains sealed and juries are meant to be comprised of citizens who have seen or heard as little evidence as possible at the start of a trial. Imperfect as our criminal justice system may be, I really don’t think we want to substitute the fundamental components of due process and jury trials for digitally deputized lynch mobs, no matter how incontrovertible video evidence might appear to be. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, a self-appointed posse formed on Reddit that zeroed in on a suspect, who drew attention partly because he had gone missing. It turned out that the poor guy the Redditors had identified was “missing” because he had taken himself to a secluded location to commit suicide. And the only result the online posse managed to achieve was to spawn harassment of the young man’s family in advance of the grief that would come when they learned of his death.
Online vigilantism frequently turns into actual harm; and it doesn’t matter if many of us think the victim “deserves” it because we saw a video of him doing something bad. Evidence has already shown, and logic certainly suggests, that the mere presence of the body cameras already brings about desired effects without dumping all the video onto YouTube for the world to chat about. It is sufficient, and probably even more effective, for an officer to be aware that a constant record is being stored, which can be entered into evidence in a case against him for abusing his authority. If that same video is made public, the officer’s attorney has an opening to strike it from the record, the prosecutor has a harder time empaneling a jury of peers who haven’t drawn early conclusions; and these factors alone are more likely to further entrench the standard practice of not indicting officers for apparent wrongdoing than to move the trend in the other direction.
It Probably Wont Help the Larger Cause
I personally believe the case of Michael Brown is pretty fuzzy because the only evidence available corroborates Officer Wilson’s testimony. But the Eric Garner case in NYC is another matter; we have citizen-filmed video that shows an officer using excessive force and killing Mr. Garner with an illegal choke hold.* While it’s true that even video footage requires context and other evidence to properly weigh any case, the fact that there was no indictment in the circumstances involving Mr. Garner is a travesty; but the reasons for this failure are cultural, political, and yes, racial.
The flaws of law enforcement policy and any underlying racism that may affect procedure in various communities require real social change that is just as likely to be stymied by constant distribution of body cam footage as it is to be aided by whatever illusion of transparency that distribution would create. I say illusion because, as I have argued in several contexts, there is an assumption by well-meaning citizens that raw, decontextualized information must inevitably foster a majority and morally-aligned public who will pressure authorities for change. Interestingly, though this assumption is contradicted by the fact that for all the increase in leaks and smart-phone videos and raw data dispersion, we see even greater schisms and social discord on a range of issues than in years prior to this media saturation. Unfortunately, an unexpurgated video has the same potential to ignite a racially-motivated defense of police brutality as it is to ignite racially-motivated retaliation against police in general. Reason based on evidence does not necessarily prevail in the larger public forum; in fact, it rarely does. And video can be a highly emotional medium.
We have a lot of video now that has sparked plenty of outrage but has done very little to move us toward greater balance or away from policies that, for instance, disproportionally place black citizens in conflict with police officers. There is no denying that there are millions of Americans who will support those policies by saying “Yeah, but there are more black criminals,” and then we’re off to the races in every sense of the word. How are the cultural complexities of that or any other shouting match going to be calmed by the mass distribution of these videos? I suspect tempers would not be mollified, that these raw images would throw more fuel on an already smoldering fire. If that’s true, the resulting increase in tensions will only make communities less politically capable of adopting law enforcement policies that might forge better relations among citizens and officers. Or am I missing something? Have internet comment threads generally decreased the level of vitriol in society?
As stated, I like the idea of these cameras as a hedge against officers who might abuse their authority and as a tool to protect officers who may be wrongly accused of such abuse. But turning the footage itself into an ongoing spectacle, calling it oversight, and then allowing YouTube and others to monetize the show, does not sound to me like social progress.
*The proximate cause of death may not have been the choke hold. I don’t mean to write anything careless about the case itself and thank commenter Angry Villager for making a valid criticism. The larger point, of course, is that even with a video viewed by millions, the conditions preventing further investigation or indictment may prevail.