The question of “Who watches the Watchmen?” has become of increasing importance with events like those of Ferguson, Missouri, which has been at the center of the debate for police oversite. The fact that it is legal for civilians to record police officers has led to the revelations of some abuses, but many police departments are looking to move towards greater transparency by equipping their people with body cameras. Innovations like GoPro have made it possible to supply a small camera attached to the head or chest to record interactions with the public and hopefully prevent abuses. But the increasing use of body cameras by police has created some privacy concerns for many that will have to be ironed out before they become the standard.
It is legal in all 50 American states to record police officers, provided that the person with the camera is not obstructing justice. Recordings of events in Ferguson during the riots have changed how people view the operations of police forces all over the country. It is in part due to the ability of others to record police actions that the call for reform has gone up. Many police forces are instituting the use of body cameras as an attempt to make change from within. Advocates of the cameras are pleased with such developments and continue to promote the advantages of using them. New York Civil Liberties Union’s executive director Donna Lieberman said that cameras should protect cops as well as indict those who have betrayed their core responsibility of protect and defend. Many police departments seem to agree with her.
Cleveland, Ohio police will soon have body cameras after the city council approved funding for the measure, increasing the number of cities who have implemented the measure. A bill in New Jersey will require police officers throughout the state to be quipped with cameras while on the job. The two Democrats who drafted the bill have called body cameras the next step in ensuring public safety. But there are problems with the measure, not the least of which is how to handle privacy. Questions about when officers are required to record, how to notify those they are recording and what to do with the data recorded still need to be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction. Without solutions now, there could be more problems after the cameras are instituted.
Nevertheless, where cameras have been used, they have been largely successful, and not just when they are used by police officers. Studies have shown that when cameras are involved there are fewer abuses by police officers and fewer complaints made by the public. Being recorded effectively makes police officers behave better is what the studies have shown. Video posted online has given evidence as to why that fact is important. Things like prohibited chokeholds and profiling have all been caught on tape, including an interesting example where an officer profiles a civilian as a stoner simply because he has frisbee golf equipment in his car. The department that employed that office stated that he did not act in line with department practice, but without that recording it likely would never have been brought to life.
In many videos and conversations involving police, the public can be heard to say that they do not trust police officers. That lack of trust reflects many of the actions that have been in the news or experienced by members of the public. This makes it difficult for police to do their jobs efficiently and protect people they way they are supposed to. While there are still questions about privacy and how to implement use of body cameras, the consensus seems to be that increasing their use will do more good for police and the public than not doing so.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury