By James Poulos.
For critics of police misconduct looking for an easy fix, one solution towers above the rest: affix video cameras to cops. The idea is picking up steam in California, where top officials are showing increased interest.
Yet this also is a time when concerns about data harvesting and government surveillance are also increasing. So questions remain as to whether augmenting oversight with “foolproof” technology contributes to a frame of mind that doesn’t serve civil liberties as much as advocates might hope.
California’s on-body camera experiment is already underway in Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles Times reports, Police commissioner Steve Soboroff led the push, raising $1 million for an effort expected to culminate in some 600 body cams to be used across the LAPD. But with Police Chief Charlie Beck describing the cameras as “the future of policing,” future growth seems assured, barring some unexpected mishap.
Who, indeed, wants to be seen taking a stand against the future — especially the future of public safety? In San Diego, the Times points out, politicians are lining up to endorse the rosy view. There, the city council has allocated twice Los Angeles’ planned spend, with city officials joining the incoming and outgoing chief of police in embracing cop cams.
Southern California’s swell of institutional support is a strong indication of one powerful trend — government enthusiasm toward enlisting technology in pursuit of public safety perfection. The case for videocams on police pitches a dual rationale that seems to benefit both those who govern and those who are governed. Citizens get a body of evidence in the event of officer misconduct. And officers — and departments — get protection from adverse verdicts and costly settlements in litigation surrounding alleged abuse.
What’s missing from that balanced equation, however, is a reckoning with the broader implications of perpetual police surveillance. The logic behind ubiquitous officer-mounted video does not stop with miniature automated camcorders.
The degree to which cops are “wired” is limited only by the state of the technological art. The New York City Police Department predictably now is testing Google Glass for use on the streets. The “future of policing” permitted by technology is a future where police operations work more and more like military ones — with officers back at headquarters closely monitoring and directing cops in the field, using real-time, first-person video and information.
For civil liberties advocates concerned about what The Washington Post’s Radley Balko calls “the rise of the warrior cop,” that’s not exactly a reason for optimism. So long as no-knock raids, aggressive SWAT techniques, and unreasonable or warrantless searches flourish under judicial protection, invasive and violent policing can become the norm, no matter how well-documented.
It’s a process that can be accelerated by Americans’ frequent sense that a muscular, active police force is a sign of social and political progress, and by the pipeline that so often leads prosecuting attorneys “who get results” to seek and gain higher political office.
Yet the main argument against the trend set by on-body police cameras fails to think very far ahead. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, which generally accepts the move toward cop cams, focuses almost entirely on ensuring that cameras cannot be edited or turned off by the cops who wear them.
Yet many Americans are very uncomfortable with the idea of “always-on” webcams embedded in their video game consoles. Isn’t the always-on issue even more salient when it’s an entire police force equipped in that way?
Not only is the bodycam trend apt to feed — and increase — the huge federal and other government appetite for monitoring and databasing. It’s also likely to atrophy our shared standards of individual responsibility, neighborhood trust and civic freedom.
In a world where every interaction with an officer is monitored, recorded, overseen and archived, our relationship to power is fundamentally changed — even if the kind of extralegal abuse associated with high-profile litigation against police departments disappears.
Now at the forefront of the tech revolution in policing, California’s often anti-establishmentarian citizens have a unique opportunity to question whether “the system” should forever be put between every private person and every law enforcement official.