Law enforcement has used a variety of surveillance equipment in the fight against crime, but recently, highly publicized instances of police brutality and conflicting witness accounts have sparked a growing trend aimed at surveilling and recording the actions of on-duty police officers. Although law enforcement agencies across the country are already equipped with dash cameras, only a minority of departments use body cameras. Proponents say body cameras will provide greater police accountability, and let the public go wherever an officer goes. They argue that body cameras are “a natural evolution of the dash cam.”
Several Michigan cities have reported positive results from the use of body cameras, and they are currently being tested by Detroit police officers. A Michigan police officer who has been wearing a body camera for the last year believes the technology would have been useful in the recent dispute over the shooting death of Michael Brown. He explained that “right now, there are three to four sides of the story, either way, I think it would have helped the situation.” A body camera would have undoubtedly brought clarity to Ferguson, and similar incidents around the country, but body cameras do have a down side.
The use of police body cameras brings up privacy concerns for both the officers wearing them and the public they interact with. In the course of a day a police officer may interact with citizens on public roadways or other public spaces, but he or she may also be called to a private residence. Government filming inside the private residence of everyone who calls or otherwise interacts with a police officer in their home is especially intrusive. For body cameras to be effective without infringing on privacy rights, these concerns must be carefully considered. Additionally, where and for how long data from body cameras will be stored is an important question still to be answered. Do we want the video documentation from the inside of people’s homes to be accessible somewhere into perpetuity? Many are uneasy about this prospect.
Videos of arrests are also liable to end up on the internet. While the whole point of body cameras is to allow the public to monitor the police, this will necessarily mean filming and potentially publicizing private citizens during some of their most vulnerable moments. These videos could impact people’s lives, relationships, and future opportunities.
Body cameras and other emerging surveillance technology are powerful tools that could shed light on law enforcement activities around the country. It’s completely fair for the public to want to keep a close eye on the public employees who police them. However, we must respect the implications of this equipment, and keep privacy concerns at the forefront of every equation. The American Civil Liberties Union is supportive of body cameras, as long as we work hard to protect the privacy interests of our citizens from this potentially intrusive technology. Despite some concerns, the legal director of the ACLU of Michigan said that “cameras have the potential to be a win-win in that they not only protect the public against police misconduct, they also help the police against false accusations of abuse.”