The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO has brought a number of worthwhile discussion topics to national attention – not the least of which is countering widespread public distrust of law enforcement with technology. In the above mentioned case there are several conflicting reports of what happened, and that’s just taking into account the ever changing official statements from the police department. Add in eyewitness reports and it’s possible we’ll never know exactly what happened. Many people are suggesting that if police officers were required to wear body cameras this kind of problem would disappear into thin air.
In truth the argument that compelling police to wear body cameras is the one stop simple solution to ensure accountability is laughable. We know this because we can look at direct track records. In Los Angeles the LAPD (which has been trying to overcome an unfortunate reputation the department earned very publicly in 1991 with the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal a few years later) are required to wear voice recorders which switch on automatically when their cruiser sirens are activated and record voice audio within a certain range of the car once the officer steps outside. The benefit here is obvious and the argument was made that this would ensure accountability. Which it would if they worked, but mysteriously the recorders stopped working and this kept happening until the department was forced to admit that theirinternal investigations showed that officers were purposefully breaking off the antennas on their recorders to disable them. Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of the sabotaged recorders were in the Southeast division – a low income, high minority area with a long history of excessive force complaints. One can imagine mandatory body cameras might suffer similar “technical problems.”
In fact, Los Angeles has been rolling out body cameras on a trial basis already equipping officers who volunteer for the trial program with lapel cameras to compliment the ubiquitous dash cams already deployed on police cruisers everywhere. But again, these things need to be used in order to be useful – in the recent shooting of Ezell Ford, the officers were not wearing the lapel cameras and the dash cam in their car is missing.
Here’s the thing – regardless of what anyone would like to believe or would like you to believe cops are just people doing their jobs, and we know from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment that ordinary people, when put in positions of authority over other people will abuse it and can easily disassociate and justify that their position requires such actions. Officer Sunil Dutta’s recent Washington Post oped is dripping with this and there isn’t a technological solution to it. Law Enforcement should be first and foremost public servants, as long as police officers and the system that supports and enables them continues to act as if their job is authoritarian in nature and they are out on the streets to keep people in line rather than to protect them, as long as they look at people as the potential threats rather than those they are charged to look after, nothing will change and everything – including body cameras – will just be a temporary bandaid.