Sunday, September 21, 2014

Police cameras: Blessing and Curse

The White House supports a proposal for police to wear cameras recording all interactions with civilians.

Civil libertarians seem to be in favor: it will hold police accountable and reduce incidents of brutality (although from the statistics, these are rare).

For a counterpoint: imagine this scenario in the year 2020. Police cameras are now ubiquitous; fiscal shortfalls have caused a budget crisis for local police departments. How do they raise funds?

Solution: assign a half-dozen officers to review all footage captured from street cops. This squad's job is to issue citations to "the ones who got away." Jaywalk in an officers peripheral vision? Get your ticket three months later. "California stop" at a sign? Maybe the cop nearby had more pressing business to attend to, but the squad in the office can send you a ticket at their leisure.

People already complain about speed traps in local towns being a cash cow. Just wait. Meter-maids of the future could be so much more efficient, just walk past rows of cars parked in town and then wait for the office crew to detect parking violations. A computer program can probably spot the violators.

Of course, getting a fine in the mail doesn't even compare to an unjust detention or a beating. But keep in mind, the big assumption of those in favor of police cameras is that many police officers will commit evil (due to racist, sexist, classist biases) unless they are monitored. But who monitors the people who review police camera footage?

If the police truly are biased, and they have thousands of hours of live footage to review and decide who to give tickets to, who do you think gets the most tickets?

Police discretion (e.g. a warning instead of an arrest) and prosecutorial discretion (who to charge, what crimes to prosecute, and who to send to jail) are a core of our legal system. Combine that with a wide, and often vague, spectrum of laws for proper conduct. The reality is that most of us rely on the decency of law enforcement to not throw the book at us for day-to-day activities.

So if the police really are as monstrous as their worst detractors claim, and they're required to wear constant monitoring tools, I worry about one indignity being substituted for another. Cops could use their discretion (combined with increased monitoring tools) to target the same groups they've been claimed to victimize before.

On the other hand, if police are generally decent and use their discretion to avoid trivial charges, that discretion might be taken away entirely if a future budget crunch or policy change demands it.

There are certainly some bad cops out there (and bad doctors, and lawyers, and economists...). Body cameras are a technological solution to a fundamentally human problem, Advocates for recording police may be ignoring the unintended consequences.

If this legal change takes hold I would expect more polite encounters between citizens and law enforcement (which is good) but also more inflexible decisions following those encounters. Cameras point both ways.

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