The Limits of Police-worn Body Cameras: Why Citizen Journalism is Essential to Deterrence of Excessive Force by Brad Hargett

The Limits of Police-worn Body Cameras: Why Citizen Journalism is Essential to Deterrence of Excessive Force

by Brad Hargett

Recent outrage against police abuses throughout the nation have raised significant concerns regarding police oversight. Some have argued that requiring police officers to wear body cameras while on duty will deter egregious abuses.[1] Others have argued that there is no rise in the rate of police abuses.[2] Rather we are simply more aware of the abuse because of the proliferation of video recording technology.[3] In an age where traffic cams and closed circuit surveillance have become powerful tools for Big Brother should police officers expect anything less than surveillance by Little Brother, the ordinary citizen?

Although there are numerous advantages of body cameras for monitoring police practices this technology is no panacea. First, the considerable expense of outfitting police jurisdictions in order to protect “criminals” may be politically impractical. Second, any technology controlled by an individual police officer who may be prone to excessive force is likely prone to “malfunctions” and “user error.” Finally, the data collected from these body cameras is unlikely to ever see the light of day if simply warehoused in police department servers.

First, body cameras are prohibitively expensive to be utilized in police departments across the nation. The departments most able to afford the devices will be in thriving urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. What about Detroit, Gordo, or Fort Collins? Police abuse is still likely to occur in those jurisdictions and yet body cameras will likely not be available due to tight budgets.[4] Practically speaking, it will be politically difficult to convince a large segment of the public that taxpayer funds should be used to protect “criminals” from police abuses.

Second, body cameras are susceptible to tampering by police. What is to stop a police officer from simply turning off his body camera before engaging a suspect and then claiming a malfunction when that video is needed? Take the case of Armand Bennet who was shot in the head by a New Orleans police officer.[5] The officer reportedly turned off her body camera minutes before shooting Bennet.[6] Unless body cameras incorporate anti-tampering technology then the individual officers who are prone to excessive force will not be deterred by a device they can simply turn off at will.

Finally, the footage of body cameras is only a deterrent if it is seen. Perhaps Professor Haberfeld is correct in her assertion that incidences of police brutality are not necessarily more frequent but simply more visible as technology has progressed.[7] Assuming that is the case, it begs the question: where was the outrage over police abuse before the proliferation of video recording technology? My concern is that if we rely on police body cameras to record these instances of police abuse the footage may never see the light of day. What police department would willingly open itself to liability and public outrage by allowing unfettered access to body camera footage? It is much more likely that body camera footage will simply be warehoused on servers tightly controlled by the police department. In fact, the recent Department of Justice report on body camera policies notes that “[i]n most state public disclosure laws, exceptions are outlined that may exempt body-worn camera footage from public release.”[8] The report continues with the recognition that “even the broadest disclosure laws typically contain an exception for video that contains evidence or is part of an ongoing investigation.”[9] Thus, in many instances, body camera footage will be insulated from public oversight.

Consequently, citizen journalism provides the best alternative to police body cameras. First, citizen journalism is essentially free compared to the considerable expense of outfitting police officers with body cameras. Second, citizen journalism is less susceptible to police tampering. Finally, citizen journalism forces police departments and the public at large to bear witness to and critically examine the issue of police brutality.

First, the proliferation of cell phone cameras over the past decade has empowered ordinary citizens to document everything from the mundane to the immensely profound. Whereas some people use the technology to post ridiculous videos attempting to defend their favorite pop star from criticism[10] others have used the technology to record confrontations with police during peaceful protests.[11] The reality is that in 2015 the technology is so prevalent that nearly anyone can record the police.[12] As such, an active and engaged citizenry’s ability to record and publish instances of police abuse should have the same deterrent value as a body camera with none of the cost to taxpayers.

Second, whereas police may disable their own body cameras with the push of a button it is much more difficult to stop an entire crowd of citizen journalists from filming a man being choked to death on the sidewalk. However, my colleague brings ups an important drawback in that body cameras, if tamper-proof, record the entire transaction including the events leading up to the use of force. Citizen journalism is generally limited to filming the actual use of force leaving open to interpretation whether that force was reasonable under the circumstances. However, in many circumstances the videos may capture evidence that the force utilized by an officer clearly exceeded any justification for the initial engagement.[13]

Finally, the public availability of this footage is essential. As a society, we all have a vested interest in justice and ensuring that the civil rights of all people are protected from governmental abuses. Whereas body camera footage is likely to be locked away in a police department server, only to be recovered by diligent filing of FOIA requests, citizen journalists often quickly post their footage to the web via youtube, facebook, twitter, and other social media outlets.[14] As Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”[15] A police officer knowing that “the whole world is watching” may stop the swinging of a nightstick, the initiation of an illegal chokehold, or the drawing of a gun. The knowledge that Little Brother is watching and sharing with the rest of the family surely must change the culture of violence seen in too many police departments over the past several months.

As my colleague correctly notes, body cameras and citizen journalism are not mutually exclusive. My point is not that body cameras should necessarily be abandoned. In fact, if body camera policies addressed the concerns noted above perhaps there would be less need for citizen journalism. However, as it stands, citizen journalism remains the most cost effective, reliable, and publicly available source of information to deter excessive force. As such, citizen journalism should be the preferred method of challenging, publicizing, and addressing police abuse.

[1] Carrie Dann, Obama Requests $263 Million for Police Body Cameras, Training, NBC NEWS (Dec. 1, 2014), http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/obama-requests-263-million-police-body-cameras-training-n259161.

[2] Warner Todd Huston, Expert: No Rise in Use of Deadly Force by Police; Just More Cell Phones Breitbart.com (August 13, 2014), http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/08/13/expert-there-is-no-rise-in-use-of-deadly-force-by-police-just-more-cell-phones/

[3] Id.

[4] Dann, supra note 1. President Obama’s proposal provides federal matching funds for state and local police agencies but if there’s no room in the budget there will be nothing to match.

[5] Jonathan Turley, New Orleans Police Officer Turns Off Body Camera Minutes Before Shooting Suspect in Forehead JonathonTurley.org (Aug. 19, 2014), http://jonathanturley.org/2014/08/19/new-orleans-police-officer-turns-off-body-camera-minutes-before-shooting-suspect-in-forehead/

[6] Id.

[7] Huston, supra note 2.

[8] Lindsay Miller & Jessica Toliver, Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned 17 (Office of Community Oriented Policing, 2014), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/resources/472014912134715246869.pdf

[9] Id.

[10] ItsChrisCrocker, Leave Britney Alone!, YouTube (Sep. 10, 2007), http://youtu.be/kHmvkRoEowc

[11] Katie Falkenberg, Occupy Wall Street – Police Aggression, YouTube (Sep. 25, 2011), http://youtu.be/4jJyUCK0OhE

[12] Laura Ly, Can Cell Phones Stop Police Brutality? CNN.com (Nov. 19, 2014), http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/us/police-cell-phone-videos/

[13] Conor Friedersdorf, Eric Garner and the NYPD’s History of Deadly Chokeholds The Atlantic (Dec. 4, 2014), http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/context-for-the-punishment-free-killing-of-eric-garner/383413/ (noting that the use of chokeholds is against NYPD policy, i.e. per se unreasonable under any circumstances)

[14] Jayson DeMers, How Social Media is Supporting a Fundamental Shift in Journalism The Huffington Post (May 8, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jayson-demers/how-social-media-is-suppo_b_3239076.html

[15] Louis D. Brandeis, Other People’s Money: And How The Bankers Use It 92 (Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers, 1st ed. 1914).

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