The day after video surfaced of a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back, the town’s mayor announced plans to outfit all its police officers with body cameras. The New York Police Department has started to put cameras on officers, and the White House has announced a $263 million program to supply 50,000 body cameras to local police.
Advocates for these cameras hope that they will hold police accountable for their behavior. Skeptics point out that unobstructed video footage did nothing to win an indictment in the police killing of Eric Garner. But this debate has overlooked another possibility. Even if cameras reduce police violence, they could transform how citizens interact with police once facial recognition technology allows officers automatically to identify each individual they lay eyes on.
Facial recognition technology isn’t science fiction. Police in the United Kingdom, Dubai and Canada already wear cameras that can recognize faces to identify suspects and missing persons. Apps for Google Glass allow wearers to automatically connect faces to photos, and Taser — the leading seller of police body cameras — is developing cameras that integrate facial recognition with police databases.
This technology will amplify rather than resolve some of the problems highlighted by recent police killings. As last month’s Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri, revealed, one cause of the unrest that followed Michael Brown’s death was the town’s abuse of warrants and court fees to squeeze revenue from its poorest residents. In 2013, Ferguson issued more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people, a rate twice as high as in any other town in the St. Louis area. Each of these warrants furnished a valid basis for an arrest. Residents have described police aggressively hounding them through warrants for offenses as minor as using the wrong trash collection service or rolling through a stop sign.
In communities where warrants and debts for minor infractions are so pervasive, body cameras could fundamentally transform the relationship between police and the people they ostensibly serve. The Fourth Amendment forbids police from stopping individuals without a concrete reason to believe a crime has occurred. This restriction sets the baseline for thousands of police-civilian encounters on streets and sidewalks across the country every day.
But when police can digitally identify people at a glance, anyone who misses a court date or falls behind on child support will live in constant fear of an officer’s mere gaze. In places like Ferguson, the town’s hundreds of thousands of warrants would force residents to avoid not just interacting with police but even coming into an officer's sight.
Scott’s killing illustrates this risk. The officer who killed Scott initially stopped him for driving with a broken taillight. But according to family members, the reason Scott fled was that he owed child support, a debt for which he was arrested before. In a future in which a person could be identified by any officer’s body camera, anyone with such a debt would always be on the run from police.
This wouldn’t be the first time shocking events catalyzed reforms that later had perverse effects. In her recent book “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa describes how outrage about police using fire hoses and dogs against civil rights activists in the Jim Crow South led liberal activists and politicians to propose exactly the kind of militarized riot control that has come under national scrutiny in the wake of the Ferguson protests. In this way, the achievements of the civil rights movement became the basis for giving the police more weapons.
This history shows how giving police more resources can exacerbate rather than solve the problems caused by excessive policing. The fact that body cameras will expand police authority may explain the easy consensus that has formed around this single reform. Once body cameras are here, this new normal will be very hard to roll back or constrain.
There is no doubt body cameras have benefits. Studies show that they help pacify police-civilian interactions and ensure accountability when encounters turn violent. But body cameras will transform the nature of policing in other ways too.
If we want to overcome the pathologies that drive our excessive approach to policing and punishment, we should be cautious about any push to give police more resources. Incremental reforms aren’t just flawed in their limitations: In the rush to quickly tackle a difficult problem, reformers could harm the same communities they intend to benefit.