Will Body Cameras Further Erode Freedoms In Heavily Policed Neighborhoods?

A new report from Data & Society questions police departments’ embrace of wearable video-capture technology.

Will Body Cameras Further Erode Freedoms In Heavily Policed Neighborhoods?
[Photo: Flickr user Eli Christman]

Police departments are spending tens of millions of dollars to outfit cops with body cameras–a White House proposal, for instance, would provide matching funds of $75 million to state and local governments looking to buy them, aiming to get the wearable technology on up to 50,000 cops.


Advocates for the cameras argue that they both improve conduct during police-citizen interactions and document cases of misconduct, particularly cops’ use of excessive force. Following widespread protests over grand juries’ failure to indict officers the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others, the promise of transparency has struck a chord.

But the devices are no panacea, as research institute Data & Society reminds us in a report published today. Authors Alexandra Mateescu, Alex Rosenblat and danah boyd suggest that body cameras’ aura of accountability is inflated, to say the least.

“There has been no large-scale, systematic empirical research on their usage or implementation,” they write. “Many uncertainties about best practices remain, including when the cameras should record, what should be stored and retained, and what policies should determine the release of footage to the public.” Among the more troubling implications the report raises is the idea that body cameras “could potentially exacerbate” the “hyper-surveillance policing of black communities,” effectively turning those communities into police states.

To residents of safe, middle class enclaves, that might sound like hyperbole. But to residents of New York City’s public housing projects, for example, it may ring truer. Public housing residents are routinely cited for violations like “lingering”–even on the steps outside the buildings where they live, according to The New York Times. Body cameras have the potential to bring additional scrutiny to high-patrolled neighborhoods, further infringing on residents’ freedoms. Caught jaywalking by a patrolman’s lapel pin? It could come back to haunt you.

All of this is not to say that we should abandon the idea of body cameras outright. Some small-scale pilots have shown promising results, and with so many smartphones and wearable devices already on the streets recording footage, video documentation of police-citizen interactions may soon become the norm anyway. But before rolling out the devices in police departments around the country, the report maintains, we would be wise to evaluate their impact on the communities they profess to protect.

Without cameras, cases of police misconduct are largely one man’s word against another–a contest weighted heavily to law enforcement’s advantage. Cameras seem to promise to correct this imbalance; however, among the many provocative questions the authors ask us to consider is how conclusive video footage really is. “When, where, and under what circumstances do other forms of testimony contradict the information presented by video footage?” they ask. “Are certain kinds of encounters more likely to create conflicting interpretations?” The last thing we should be doing is throwing our legal system even further out of balance.

About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.