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The Case Against Police Body Cameras

Police body cams are almost universally regarded as a sensible solution to police brutality, but there's a serious drawback.

By Roy Klabin

Thanks to technology most bystanders carry in their pockets, we’ve seen many shocking videos of police violence recently – including the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the strangulation of Eric Garner, and the outright murder of Walter Scott by Michael Slager. Despite Slager’s arrest, the public seems numbly cynical that we’ll ever see a decline in this alarming trend. After simmering rage erupted into national protests over the high profile deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, a popular suggestion emerged in an attempt to increase accountability: Police Body-Cams.

The Obama administration just funded this venture to the tune of $20 million. But in light of NSA surveillance abuse revelations, we should be asking, will our lives be made better by introducing a roaming network of mobile cameras that constantly record our faces?

The arguments in favor of police body-cams are simple. The videos would offer an accurate and unbiased record of exactly what occurred in each officer’s shift. It would remove their ability to distort events through testimony, and create a new standard of evidence. The “if you’ve gotten nothing to hide” argument is often hurled at police who are resistant to body-cams, suggesting that any law enforcement officer who doesn’t want a video record of their work is inherently suspicious, or potentially corrupt. It’s now common to see people whip out their phones whenever police are present, and new laws that have attempted to restrict that behavior have been met with outrage. Freddie Gray’s arrest was filmed on a cell phone, and when he later died in police custody massive protests in Baltimore and a damning medical examiner’s report led to the officers getting arrested. All in all, it seems body-cams offers a solution to a very complex accountability problem.

There are, however, some pragmatic arguments against body-cams to be considered. Officers will likely no longer have the ability to show discretion or leniency. If you’re caught on camera doing even a minor legal infraction like jay-walking, the officer will be obligated to write you a ticket without the possibility of giving you a warning. More seriously, informants or snitches would be hesitant to divulge information with a camera lens glaring them in the face, fearing that the video could be seen by criminal higher-ups who would seek violent retribution. Securing the video data and private information of citizens would also be a nightmare, open to hacks, theft, bribery purchases and an endless stream of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Police officers themselves would lose all form of privacy, no longer able to enjoy private conversations with their partners, enjoy a meal or go to the bathroom without a video record. That would also apply to us civilians. If you’ve had one too many drinks and are stumbling in the street, or you’ve been traumatized in a life shattering real emergency, those private moments will become the broadcast material of anyone who can access the videos. How many sensational news sites would love to peddle in public shaming by making a “top 20 funniest drunks” list?

But most concerning of all, is the idea that on top of the endless surveillance of our cell phones, computers and an array of CCTV cameras peppered throughout most major cities, we are now considering adding even more cameras to our lives. As if to suggest that this new layer of monitoring and surveillance will somehow be the magic cure-all that finally makes our world perfectly safe.

America has been on a bleak decline in regards to crime fighting. We’ve utterly replaced the notions of prevention, with stricter punishment. Instead of focusing on education, we imprison. Instead of understanding our neighborhoods and communities, we monitor them. Instead of increasing support for troubled children, we analyze the music they listened to after their shooting spree. A significant portion of the “averted” terrorist attacks we hear about are cases of entrapment by the FBI and other bureaus.

The emergence of all these police brutality videos shows we already have the technological means to capture their misconduct. The power is in our hands now. We should be focusing on ensuring more citizens have the means to record any injustice they suffer. Putting cameras on police only means we’ve increased the state’s ability to monitor us.

Roy Klabin is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, where he focused on long-form video and reporting. His coverage of New York based drug dealers was featured in The Atlantic and he’s written on various topics including politics, crime and emerging technology for