This week, both houses of New Jersey’s legislature considered bills to make wireless, body-mounted video cameras part of the standard equipment for every state police officer. (The lower-house sponsor is Assemblymember Paul Moriarty, a liberal Democrat who famously pushed through dashboard cameras for all state troopers after one helped him beat a DWI ticket.)
The Garden State is one of numerous states and municipalities considering such legislation, including Florida; DeKalb County, Illinois; Denver; Orange County, California; and Spokane and Bremerton, Washington. Most of these measures are proposed by liberal Democrats, and enjoy support on both sides of the aisle. This follows a broader pattern of progressives nationwide calling for wiring up the constabulary as a tool to keep police accountable.
Ostensibly, these voices have joined in this call in reaction to Ferguson and other flashpoints, in the wake of what has seemingly been a season of police violence against the poor and people of color, such as the killing of cigarette vendor Eric Garner on New York’s Staten Island in July. The reasoning goes, “If police are compelled to record all their interactions with the citizens, they will behave better.” I would not want to test that theory against a modern, urban paramilitary officer geared up in repurposed military hardware, perhaps policing a demonstration or clearing a keg party, with his heads-up display, night-vision goggles, and Mesopotamian body armor—body-cam or not.
While supporters claim that cameras would transform the culture of policing, perhaps the best we could hope for would be catching them in the act more often—as when a police dashboard cam recently caught a patrolman shooting a man in the leg when he went for his wallet at a gas station in South Carolina. Yet our self-documentation, as a society, has reached unprecedented proportions. It seems as if nearly everyone has a sophisticated camera right in their pocket, linked wirelessly at every instant to global platforms.
This should be enough to empower citizens to keep police on their best constitutional behavior—yet still we are regularly treated to images of police violence. However, attempts by citizens to document the police have seemingly engendered retaliation—Ramsey Orta, who shot cell-phone video of New York cops’ fatal arrest of Eric Garner, was arrested only weeks later on what he claims are trumped-up gun charges. This suggests that citizen vigilance in cop-watching will be unreliable, as it exposes those who would come forward to possible retribution by police. Y
et despite the urgent calls for police body-cams as the solution, the rush to upgrade should be resisted. The chorus of liberal affirmation in support of these measures is remarkable for its unreflective, reactionary values. That is, a “progressive” police-accountability agenda provides cover for what is a wholesale surrender to enhanced state surveillance, with all the assumptions inherent in supposing that the state is a neutral, ideological force. Uniform cop-cams are simply a dream come true for various matrices of industrial military and surveillance power. The quick response by power to incorporate this grievance and its supposed solution into the discourse of law enforcement leaves the skeptical observer to wonder if no one on the left is listening much to poor Mr. Edward Snowden?
The Commission for Accreditation on Law Enforcement Agencies, for example, has enthusiastically endorsed the idea. In a recent issue of its trade magazine, The Police Chief, it extols video evidence as “the silent witness,” a persuasive, irrefutable means of proving cases and protecting the police from citizens’ legal claims. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, Scott v. Harris, in which the justices found video evidence more reliable than eyewitness testimony, and noting at least one study which claimed a 60% decline in use of force on shifts where cop-cams were used, the authors focus mostly on the evidentiary and liability advantage to police forces. Members of the criminal-defense bar point out that they generally win cases by exploiting the technical and strategic failures of the state’s case to create reasonable doubt—gaps in the record, failures of evidence, and simply gaming the discovery process.
“For every one time a physical recording helps you at trial, or suppression, a thousand times it buries you,” says Stanley Cohen, a fixture of New York City courtrooms for 30 years. The defense attorney’s stock in trade is “to create doubt, plant uncertainty, and play on people’s natural suspicion of authority,” he notes, while the whole idea of giving cops cameras “just conditions people to be okay with surveillance, all the time.” Cohen points out that highway patrol cars in many places have used dashboard cameras for years—but he hastens to add that “it’s a rare case when the dash-cam shows no predicate for the stop, while in most cases, it makes the bust stand up or dramatically strengthens the prosecution’s hand.” This empowerment of prosecutions through documentary video, in turn, makes plea-bargaining more difficult, which means stiffer sentences and appeals less likely to succeed. Besides, Cohen adds, “The cops already have cameras everywhere. We live in one of the most surveilled places on earth.”
We are the Selfie Generation, after all—can’t we take ownership of documenting the cops ourselves, when the flashpoint of violence occurs? Shouldn’t public and private recording systems in public spaces be discoverable and available as data to everyone? In Times Square, it’s not difficult to spot many obvious cameras of the larger sort—many of them public, others private cameras owned by real-estate-management companies, while still others seem quasi-public, under the control of Business Improvement Districts, or the like. But these are only the cameras one can spot—it is reasonable, if tending slightly towards tinfoil-hattery, to suspect that cameras in the public sphere are like roaches, with a hundred hidden ones for every one you see. To put more lenses out there may seem like a good idea, if you work in those industries that make the cameras, the networks, or the software.
But for the rest of us, the advantages are ephemeral, at best.
The camera on every patrolman’s shirt will make the militarizing of urban police forces nearly complete—mimicking the modern Army Ranger squad, kicking in doors in the global war on terror. Police will be god-like in their panoptic command of the visual scene, sending the signal back to central—transformed into two-legged drones that can walk up your stairs, knock on your door, and administer a beatdown as required, preserving that Kodak moment forever. The Robocop paradigm will be upon us at last, as the latest advances in tiny, powerful lenses and network capabilities record, process, data-mine (facial-recognition software, anyone?), save, share, and archive every beat cop’s busy day. I first remember the police recording video at squatter and homeless demonstrations in the Lower East Side of New York in the 1980s.
A video camera was a big commitment back then—as big as the most jumbo-sized boom-box, weighing up to 30 pounds, and larded with heavy batteries that ran dead fast. Carrying it was the NYPD’s equivalent of the AV nerd at high school (yes, a school function I once proudly served). The NYPD’s purpose in deploying the video was never to vindicate the Rights of Man or protect the Constitution, but to protect themselves from brutality lawsuits and to gather intelligence on housing activists, punk-rockers, squatters and anarchists of whatever stripe. Video collected by their intelligence squads reportedly formed the basis of investigations, prosecutions, and further raids on squats. Who knows how well they archived all that old material, shot on magnetic tape? Odds are that little of it survives in its fragile state, from the fuzzy, bulky, cumbersome pre-digital age. That won’t be the case now. The mountains of data to be collected by the state through its police will be almost unimaginable, and its assumedly eternal possession and maintenance will be a matter of ideology in the end—uplinked to the great eye in the sky. While a small-town police force—unable to sustain the costs of defending a massive lawsuit for brutality—might want to keep their cops honest with cameras, in dense, difficult urban terrain like New York, with its 35,000 police officers, the very idea of so many cameras, gathering so much data, is chilling to the public commons. It is hoped that taxpayers would think again before rushing to adopt this omnipotent, intrusive, and expensive technology, which, once acquiesced in, will extend active and possibly permanent surveillance to every street corner.