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Police cameras are no cure-all after Ferguson

Tech meant to track behavior could do more harm than good, depending on how the data is controlled, stored and used

August 29, 2014 6:00AM ET

The tragically familiar story that has been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri — as it has elsewhere, over and over and over again — has Americans searching for answers. In the weeks since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, the spotlight has once again fallen on police violence — including how officers’ version of events are too often presented as the authoritative truth. The national outrage suggests a day of reckoning may finally be at hand. But whether or not it results in a convicted cop, it will almost certainly mean more surveillance cameras.

There have been repeated calls for police officers to wear body-mounted cameras in the weeks since the Brown shooting. On Monday, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill proposed withholding federal funding from police departments that don’t implement the cameras. After all, many rightly wonder, what would have happened if Wilson had been wearing a camera during the encounter, which ended with Brown being shot at least six times, his hands reportedly raised in surrender? And what of the subsequent spectacle, in which hordes of anonymous, military-clad cops aimed sniper rifles at crowds of protesters, threatened and arrested journalists and fired copious amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets into the streets and even residents’ front yards?

Demands such as McCaskill’s have an undeniable appeal. But systems meant to monitor the police are not a panacea for police aggression and must be implemented properly in order to be fair and effective.

Not a clear-cut solution

Supporters of body-mounted cameras point to Rialto, California, a town of approximately 100,000 where a yearlong trial (PDF) of on-body recording systems resulted in police using force 59 percent less often and 87 percent fewer complaints from citizens. A WhiteHouse.gov petition demanding police accountability by requiring “all state, county and local police to wear a camera” has more than 148,000 signatures at the time of this writing, passing the threshold requiring a response by the administration. Last week the Ferguson Police Department jumped on the bandwagon, pledging to “secure dash and vest cams” for officers on patrol. Police departments across the U.S. as well as in England, Brazil and Australia have already implemented similar systems.

But a self-recording police force is not the clear-cut solution many are making it out to be. The most obvious concerns are about privacy, given the potential for huge numbers of innocent citizens to be captured by police body cameras. It takes little imagination to see how such cameras could augment already ubiquitous CCTV and facial recognition systems, allowing police to retroactively track and monitor innocent passersby, searching for indiscretions, imagined or otherwise.

Axon, a leading on-body camera system developed by the stun-gun company Taser, attempts to address this by creating a rolling video buffer: Footage older than 30 seconds is automatically deleted; when the officer hits “record,” everything from the 30 preceding seconds onward is captured. The footage is then uploaded to Taser’s privately owned file locker, Evidence.com, until needed.

But do officers get to decide when to start and stop recording? Even with a buffer, officers could selectively edit their encounters in ways that eliminate context and reflect poorly on the subject, including pointing the camera away at key moments or simply not recording at all. Furthermore, individual departments’ internal policies would likely determine how missing or incomplete footage is handled, making the process inscrutable to the public.

Who controls those cameras, how and where they are pointed and what policies govern them matter — as much as if not more so than whether we deploy those systems in the first place.

Perhaps even more important is who has access to the recordings and where they are stored. Services such as Evidence.com effectively dump public recordings into a black box, essentially handing over power to a private corporation. If anyone — police or otherwise — is able access the footage without an audit trail, the videos would be open to the same kinds of tampering that occur with physical evidence. The only way to guarantee integrity is to automatically disseminate footage to a public online archive — or, less ideally, encrypt the data before it leaves an officer’s camera, making it available only to a judge or lawyer possessing the proper decryption key.

The details of how such video is collected and stored are important, because even when cameras are watching, police often attempt to distort the narrative and conceal evidence. Just last week a man was exonerated in New Jersey after a dash-cam video (originally hidden by the police) proved that officers, unprovoked, smashed the window of his car and punched him after he pulled to the side of the road and put his hands in the air. Police falsely accused the man of eluding capture and attempting to grab an officer’s gun. Three officers have now been charged with evidence tampering, one with assault. But had the defendant’s lawyer not fought to obtain the footage or if it had been destroyed, an innocent man would have faced up to five years in jail. When cameras are involved, there is still a human element, and that leaves the door open for deceit.

Cameras on an officer’s head or vest, rather than on a patrol car dashboard, also raise the question of perspective; these cameras make citizens the object of scrutiny rather than officers — an important distinction that might affect how a jury or the general public perceives events. On-body cameras might have affected the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man killed last month after an NYPD officer put him in an illegal chokehold. But amateur video of the incident recorded by a bystander, Ramsey Orta, shows Garner was quickly grabbed from all sides. Would close-up, shaky footage from hypothetical head or chest-mounted cop cameras have shown the chokehold clearly? Likely not. 

Tools for transparency

If anything, the introduction of police body cameras should inspire citizens to film the police more, not less. A camera can certainly be a tool of empowerment, but police should not have a monopoly on official recorded versions of events. Citizen watchdogs using apps such as Cop Watch, which streamlines reporting of police misconduct and sends out text alerts, are just as valuable a perspective as first-person police cameras, if not more so.

But ultimately, it’s naive to think that technology by itself could cure police aggression and institutional racism. Police misbehave even when they are surrounded by news cameras not because they are stupid but because they know the most likely consequence is a few weeks of desk duty or paid leave. The problem requires not just new tech but radical reform of the nation’s law enforcement. No matter how much we sharpen the tools of transparency, it won’t matter if there is no institutional appetite for justice.

On-body recording systems show great promise, but those fighting for police accountability mustn’t stop at having cameras for cameras’ sake. Who controls those cameras, how and where they are pointed and what policies govern them matter — as much as if not more so than whether we deploy those systems in the first place. 

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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