Police Cameras: Still a Bad Idea

Not a panacea.

Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

When a near-universal consensus emerges around any new idea, some skepticism is usually in order. So it is with the current enthusiasm for mandatory police body cameras.

The impulse behind this policy -- to hold police accountable for their actions, following several high-profile incidents of violence -- is sound. The policy itself is not. And those calling for cameras, such as Hillary Clinton, should consider the drawbacks.

Video is far from an infallible evidentiary tool. The angle or even lighting of any particular frame can improperly sway a juror's perception of an incident on film. And because video recordings often lack crucial context -- those moments of ambiguity that can turn a dangerous encounter into a deadly one -- they can mislead as much as clarify.

Cameras could also have a detrimental effect on policing. Officers may be less inclined to engage communities, patrol high-crime areas, or address quality-of-life issues -- loitering, pot smoking, playing loud music -- if they're required to keep their cameras rolling at all times. And witnesses (as well as victims) aren't likely to be forthcoming on camera in neighborhoods where they fear retribution.

One frequently cited study of police cameras -- conducted in Rialto, California, in 2012 -- found a decline in both use of force and complaints against the police when cameras were in use. Which sounds great, except: Federal statistics show a significant increase in both violent crime and property crime in Rialto in 2012. The usual caveats apply: Correlation isn't causation, and other factors may be at play. All the more reason to study this issue further.

Other concerns are less quantifiable. Police work often involves responding to people in embarrassing situations: medical emergencies, psychiatric episodes, domestic disputes. Capturing such intimate incidents on video is deeply intrusive -- yet may soon become routine. Arrests are already winding up on YouTube with disturbing frequency; next time you watch one, try to remember that the person being collared is presumed innocent.

Cameras also threaten to degrade civic values by turning police officers into walking surveillance tools. This could erode trust between citizens and law enforcement, as well as formalize casual public reconnaissance in a way that the NSA never dreamed of.

A few other questions suggest themselves. Who will have access to the videos -- lawyers, the accused, any curious citizen? Perhaps someone sensing a business opportunity? Will the films be subject to public-records laws? Can police store them indefinitely, post them online, scan them with facial recognition software for use in later cases? In short, has the public fully considered the consequences of empowering police departments to create a new panopticon? 

No -- and it shouldn't have to. If the recent uproar about police violence reveals anything, it's that citizens are taking these matters into their own hands. Smartphone cameras have been ubiquitous during demonstrations in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, and the public is getting more creative when it comes to watching the watchers. Police now know they could be monitored by citizens at any moment, and not the other way around.

The result should be a more vigilant public, a more accountable police force, and a balance of power that's more in line with American values. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.