Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Police body cams can save lives and lawsuits. There’s remarkable evidence from field trials supporting that claim:
In 2006, police officers in the United Kingdom tested body cameras and found that the technology enhanced the collection of hard-to-refute evidence and resulted in fewer cases going to trial. In 2012, a similar field test took place with the Rialto, Calif., Police Department. The 12-month experiment randomly tested body cameras on officers during their shifts. The cops used cameras from Taser International, which were water resistant, captured video in full color and had a battery life of 12 hours. The test results were startling: When the cameras were turned on, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent and complaints against the police fell nearly 90 percent. [Newcombe]
However, technology changes, and new technology raises new issues with these devices.
A new (and relatively shoddy) report from the Department of Justice confirms that some body cameras used by police have facial recognition technology as well as some ability to detect weapons on an individual. There is no comment on the accuracy of either technology. We know that police radar guns have a statistical measurement error, but what’s the equivalent for facial recognition?
That changes the interaction between police and civilians.
It makes perfect sense that an officer would want to know if an individual he is approaching is a known criminal or potentially dangerous. Certainly, the officer would want to know if the civilian is armed. Heck, I’d like to know that.
If the camera can provide that information, it makes no sense that a body cam would ever be disabled on initial approach to a suspect. In shootings where the body cam is reported to have been non-working, that becomes more suspicious. What officer would want to go on patrol with a key piece of equipment out of service?
The body cam raises issues for civilians with permits to carry concealed weapons. If the officer knows someone is armed, will they approach the civilian differently? Treat the civilian more like a criminal? Would that raise the risk of the civilian being shot?
Obviously, protestors lose their anonymity. Any protestor — whether it’s a protest over a shooting, taxes, firing of a school teacher or flag burning — will be identifiable if in range of a body cam. There will be an electronic record of those so identified. How will that record be used? There are no regulations on that today, as protest is in theory a public act. Could you lose a job because you participated in a protest?
What controls are there on the use of body cams by private detectives and civilians, or their placement on drones?
If an officer leaves the scene of a domestic violence complaint without making an arrest or report, is there still an electronic record? Could that record be accessed for use in any subsequent court actions?
Lot’s of questions with no answers as yet.
- Hung, Vivian, ESQ, et. al., Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, “A Market Survey of Body Worn Camera Technologies,” under a grant from the US Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Doc. # 250381, November 2016.
- “Research on Body-Worn Cameras and Law Enforcement,” National Institute of Justice, last updated, Dec. 20, 2016. https://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/technology/pages/body-worn-cameras.aspx
- Newcombe, Tod, “For the Record: Understanding the Technology Behind Body Worn Cameras,” GovTech, 8 Dept. 2015. http://www.govtech.com/dc/articles/For-the-Record-Understanding-the-Technology-Behind-Body-Worn-Cameras.html