Cops and Cameras: The Future of Policing

The USA Today editorial board is criticizing the use of state wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens who tape on-duty police officers. I have written on this extensively: here, here, here and here. The editorial joins the Washington Examiner and Washington Post in this critique.

USA Today’s opposing view (presented by two AFL-CIO police union officials) provides this comment:

In today’s environment, police officers have to assume that every action they take is captured on tape, somewhere. They must be comfortable that everything they say or do in the course of their duties may be shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see. Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.

This is often true. The recordings that prompt public outcry are sometimes “gotcha” moments where the camera only captures the use of force with no context.

Here is an example from Maryland that shows officers arresting a woman during the Preakness Stakes. At the end of the video, an officer says to the person recording the arrest: “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

As the USA Today editorial notes, this is a misreading of Maryland law that is kept alive by the prosecution of Anthony Graber and others who record the police. My commentary on the issue is here. As Carlos Miller points out, Maryland prosecutors come to different conclusions about the scope of the state’s wiretap law.

The real problem (besides the fact that the officer is misstating the law to prevent public accountability) is that the officer felt it necessary to stop the filming in the first place. This arrest was justified. The woman bleeding on the floor assaulted another patron, and when two officers responded to the incident, she assaulted them as well. This was a justified and necessary arrest. Whether the level of force was justified is another question, and one that is harder to assess because there is no recording of it.

Here is the solution – officers recording the incidents:

A handful of police departments already have their officers wearing video and audio recording devices. While I said a while ago that gun-mounted cameras are a good tool for police transparency and accountability, this head-mounted camera is a better option. It captures the prelude to the use of force, and doesn’t provide an incentive for the officer to draw his or her weapon sooner to get the event on film.

This is the future of American law enforcement. Departments will embrace this technology because it is a defensive measure against public outcry over the next “gotcha” video filmed with a cell phone and potential lawsuits. Law enforcement agencies will release their own footage of high-publicity events to show that their officers were complying with department guidelines on the use of force. The presence of a camera in an interaction between a cop and a citizen may also serve to keep behavior more civil since both parties know that the world is watching.

In 10 or 15 years, this technology will be ubiquitous just as police cruiser dashboard cameras are now, and law enforcement officers and the public will be better off for it.