Police are like toddlers given access to deadly weapons, and we as a citizenry have been very irresponsible parents. Of course, this is not to say that police officers need diapers, but rather that without supervision or guidance, they will run amok.
In light of recent protests and disputed police actions across the country, most notably Ferguson, Missouri, more and more police departments are adopting body-mounted cameras. The Isla Vista Foot Patrol is set to begin wearing such devices. The argument for these cameras is simple—the police will behave better if they know they are being recorded. Besides being simple, the argument is also shortsighted and plain wrong. Body cameras are not the answer; they are the superficial bandage for a deeper problem.
These cameras are a bad solution to a behavior issue. They are the equivalent of parents putting cameras in a toddler’s room—they won’t fix the cause of bad behavior. Cameras will simply discourage certain negative behaviors based on possible consequences. Officers will learn how to dodge the camera in order to continue getting what they want, just like a toddler will try to grab cookies out of the forbidden jar without getting caught. Pervasive behavior issues will continue to manifest themselves as officers get better at beating the camera.
Those who argue that the camera is too difficult to beat effectively overlook the most glaring problem with the cameras—they belong to and are controlled by the police. These cameras will be only as objective as the officers wearing them. It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to foresee “incidental obstacles” obstructing police cameras at crucial points of a recording. Ultimately, the footage is under the control of the police departments anyways, which in itself has great potential for abuse. In the age of easy video editing, I do not trust that police officers will not look out for one another enough to remove damning evidence from a video in order to save the job of a friend and colleague.
Even with all of this in mind, police cameras could be at least considered neutral forces if they did nothing actively negative. The problem is that they do. Police cameras inherently enable the ability of the police to establish unwarranted surveillance. The most troubling aspect of this is its potential to enable rampant profiling on racial and other bases. A police officer who turns the camera on racial minorities based on prejudice will inevitably have his or her racism vindicated based on opportunistically taken video.
On a more philosophical level, these cameras are another step towards establishing surveillance in the name of security. I do not want to live in a country where everything is recorded. Police body cameras will not make that happen, but it is not just science fiction to imagine the cameras put up before “Deltopia” in the last year becoming the norm on every street corner in Isla Vista.
The only way to cure the problem of misbehaving police is by addressing the cause of misbehavior, not the misbehavior itself. While police cameras may initially stop some misbehaviors, the underlying problem will continue to rear its ugly head as police learn to circumvent their own cameras. It is a temporary solution to a much more permanent problem, and pretending that cameras are more of a fix than they are is just sweeping the problem under the rug instead of addressing it directly, which is what needs to happen. Our toddlers do not need to grow up. We need to grow them up.