Every Breath You Take

In the wake of the Ferguson debacle, there has been an outpouring of support in favor of on-duty officers wearing body cameras. It makes sense: in the realm of proof and evidence, video/audio is usually a game changer. To many people, the only the only folks that would be adversely affected are the “bad cops,” which only makes the prospect of body cameras even MORE appealing to the general public.

 

At first glance, the effects of these types of digital cameras seem to be overwhelmingly positive. In a New York Times article published in April 2013, a study was done on a police department in Rialto, California where officers were outfitted with these small body cameras. According to early results from the study, “the department overall had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.” The article mentions that while these stats seem great, the A.C.L.U. still has concerns regarding privacy in a world where anything and everything will be recorded, similar to a “Big Brother” scenario. One example that personally comes to mind is the implementation of “red light cameras” in cities nationwide, both a burden for drivers and the perfect scenario for police departments to rack up the amount of revenue earned from speeding tickets. I was born and raised in Houston and taxpayers are STILL paying for the now-defunct cameras (they were banned by referendum in 2010), I can remember the intersections near my home and high school that had these things attached to the stoplight poles even after all these years. The eerie flash that went off as soon as the lights turned red always creeped me out more than anything on the road. They didn’t even give me a chance to fix my hair before snapping a pic…

**Wow. Timing is everything. See the note at the end of the essay.
I’ve thought about the actual use of these body devices in the field and can’t help but feel a bit nervous. I always like to look at situations from a “devil’s advocate” point of view by default, not only to see the broader scope of the situation but to frustrate my friends to no end. It might be nice to see the folks in blue with these devices strapped to their collars and lapels, but I feel that the amount of media and public attention being paid to this topic is largely reactionary due the aforementioned event(s). An online petition calling for a “Mike Brown Law” was created in August 2014 that earned over 154,000 signatures from supporters, and an official White House response included a report conducted in 2013 that included some pros and cons of implementing these devices. Here are a few of the lingering questions from that report:
  • What is the most effective type of camera (vehicle, body, weapon) — and if body, where is it best placed (lapel, ear, belt)?
  • What are the privacy implications of having officers record interactions with the public?
  • When should cameras be turned on?
  • Does every officer on a force need a camera?
  • How long should video data be maintained and who should have access to it?
  • What is the impact on community relationships?
  • What is the overall cost?

It’s understandable for the public to become enraged over the events in Ferguson and call for immediate action in some way, shape, or form. By doing so, it helps to give the feeling that at least SOMETHING has been done to help some problem X or issue Y. But try and sit down for a second and think of the consequences (if any) that may spring up ten years down the camera-covered road. it’s not like the cameras will automatically become a saving grace for civilians since justice, like traffic, goes both ways. There’s also the question of the effectiveness of the cameras themselves. What’s to stop an officer from, say, moving his arm in front of the camera to obstruct the viewing angle, or arguing that the device was faulty in the wake of an incident where the audio/video is inexplicably unavailable? It’d be funny to see a courtroom study body camera footage of an extreme closeup of an extremely hairy forearm. Additionally, simply sticking some cameras onto our officers and sending them out into the field isn’t enough: there need to be nation-wide standards for how the footage and data is handled, including (but not limited to) how long the footage can be held by the department, where it is saved, who can access it, and what happens in the case of lost, glitched, or messed up footage. Does it benefit the citizen if a camera doesn’t capture anything in the sense that it’s the operator’s (or officer’s) fault and it can be perceived as destruction of evidence, or does the case continue as if the evidence never existed in the first place?

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The HPD office in Houston, TX. I’m sure there weren’t any red light cams in that area. Photo by Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle

As I finished typing this post in a coffee shop near downtown Houston, TX, an officer from the Houston Police Department parked his car out front and walked inside. I debated whether or not I wanted to bring up my humble little DigA blog post because the subject matter must be pretty familiar to him, and ultimately decided to strike up a quick conversation with him after he’d gotten his drink. He looked like he was in a hurry, so I quickly said I was writing an opinion piece on police body cameras and was wondering what he thought about them. He said that while the HPD is currently trying to obtain funding for their wide-scale implementation and he doesn’t currently have one on his person, he has a friend who has been testing one of them in the field and they seem to be very effective at maintaining positive interactions between officers and the general public. Asked whether or not he thinks that the HPD in particular would benefit from their use, he said that he feels like it’s the logical next step in terms of how police officers will go about their day-to-day operations, but he knows a number of the older officers in the department aren’t big fans of the idea (it sounded like he was hinting at some form of technological illiteracy or skepticism on their part, since he laughed after saying it).

After he’d walked away, I did some research and found that about 100 HPD officers are currently equipped with body cameras and the initial results of their testing have, indeed, been positive. They just need the cash to pull off a wide-scale implementation of the devices, and they hope to have them out in the wild in about a year. I, for one, hope that they consider the variables associated with body cameras and take them into account. Don’t just do it, do it RIGHT.

And please, no flash. Those speed traps still trigger some BAD memories.

 

EDIT: What awesome timing. About 24 hours after finishing this piece, I read that on Monday President Obama had announced a $263 million program that will provide approximately 50,000 body cameras for police officers across the United States. The Verge notes that the 50,000 cameras will cover only a fraction of the more than 750,000 police officers in the United States, no doubt due to the overall cost of such an endeavor. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of the training that will be included in the program, and whether or not nationwide guidelines for body camera use will be established. Seeing as how the FAA is actively trying to establish new rules and regulations for drone use since the only way I can describe the state of drone flying in general is “Wild West meets new technological frontier and lack of governmental and regulatory attention” (heck, I watched the 4th of July fireworks over the James River in downtown Richmond this past summer and could see no less than four of those things flying around up there), I just hope enough attention is paid to the proper implementation of these things, from educating users to making the public aware of how their rights will be affected by their use.

Here’s the main /r/technology Reddit thread in case you’d like to peruse the comments section.

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