Will Equipping Police With Cameras Create Nicer Cops Or A Surveillance State?

Constant self-monitoring by police officers could reduce civil rights abuses, but do we want even more video cameras on our streets? Now, the nation’s largest police force may be forced to experiment.

Will Equipping Police With Cameras Create Nicer Cops Or A Surveillance State?
[Image: Handcuff via Shutterstock]

Imagine thousands of new government-owned video cameras roaming the streets of New York City. Sounds like a huge leap towards a Big Brother state.


Surprisingly, civil liberties advocates are open to it. That’s because the cameras would be worn by police, and could be used to document their bad behavior, whether that is brutality or improper stops and searches. More importantly, cops–like reality show stars and convenience store clerks–might behave differently if there’s a video camera rolling.

From California and Arizona to Florida and Texas, some smaller police departments around the country have been trying out the use of body-worn cameras. But the NYPD is the nation’s largest force, with 35,000 uniformed officers, and this week a federal judge ordered the department start a pilot program. The demand was tucked inside the judge’s ruling that New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy violates minorities’ constitutional rights. The city bristled: Mayor Bloomberg told the Associated Press wearable cameras would be a “nightmare” for the NYPD, and some people wonder whether it would lead police to be too timid.

Experiments being undertaken around the country, however, are proving otherwise. In a full-year study with the police force in Rialto, California, that concluded in February of this year, researchers found that police used “force” half as many times as they had a year earlier when a tiny camera with a 12-hour battery life was worn on their shirt pocket, hat, collar or sunglasses. There were also only three complaints from the public during the study, compared to 28 complaints a year earlier.

“The study was able to expose what happens when the level of certainty of apprehension for professional misconduct was set at 100%. These are social circumstances that are characterized with an inescapable panopticonic gaze,” the paper, co-authored by Rialto’s police chief and University of Cambridge criminology researcher Barak Ariel.

Results like these, which were cited this week by the judge in the New York case, are why a number of civil liberties groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights, cautiously endorse body-worn cameras for the NYPD–despite some concerns about privacy. NYCLU has already fought for police to record full interrogations (not just confessions), and body-worn cameras would be an extension of that, says associated legal director Chris Dunn. While no one wants to see the police taping the general public’s activity, “we make a distinction,” Dunn says, “when it is designed to curb and document police abuse.”

No one knows yet how a pilot in New York City would take shape–for example, when exactly a camera would have to be turned on. If required to wear cameras, however, police officers might have an incentive to keep them running. By documenting the circumstances leading them to stop a person in the first place, they would be able to defend themselves against accusations of discrimination or improper use of force: “The more of it that’s on tape, the better for them,” said Dunn. Many police departments that use cameras like them as a defense against false accusations.

In theory, there would be strong privacy measures that restrict the use of the video unless there’s a complaint, investigation or lawsuit–not, say, as evidence for a police officer having an affair with someone’s wife, says Dunn. In Rialto, for example, the video collected wasn’t supposed to be randomly reviewed.


But sanctioning law enforcement’s use of body-worn cameras in one scenario could also lead down a slippery slope towards a stronger surveillance state. In fact, in most other situations, the NYCLU is quite concerned about the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public spaces–it sent a team to document 2,397 of them visible on the streets of Manhattan–and, given our recent history, privacy protections for policing cameras might not last in the face of pressure to use the tapes as evidence.

More importantly, the issues raised by these programs aren’t restricted to the expensive, specialized cameras that police departments might purchase. Already, the public is documenting more and more on their phones–and if wearable computers like Google Glass take off, ubiquitous monitoring could simply become a fact of life.

The authors of the Rialto study imagine that other fields, such as the medical profession, might also reduce cases of “alleged unprofessional conduct” if doctors taped their interactions with patients. “We acknowledge that this may pose ethical considerations, though we believe that, on average, the benefits outweigh the costs,” they write.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.