The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, where two grand juries refused to return indictments for two white police officers who killed two unarmed black men, have forced a serious, if not opportunistic, debate about police reform.
Perhaps the most powerful suggestion to emerge from this debate is that all police officers should be equipped with body cameras that allow for recording of all confrontations with ordinary individuals. While this is probably an inevitable reform – and one, at least in theory, positive – I stray from the bullishness of many to raise a few points of caution.
Many American cities, including Philadelphia, as recently reported on the Broad and Cecil news blog, are now piloting camera programs. The best of them operate as follows: a small camera attached to the police officer’s lapel transmits a constant stream of data to some central storage server, which is retained only for a short period of time unless the police officer does something – like draw his weapon – at which point the data is permanently stored. This program has many positives.
However, despite the obvious benefits, the camera program as formulated has several drawbacks, of which the first is cost. As reported last month, the cost of each camera can exceed several hundred dollars. Thus the question: who pays?
One solution, as evinced by President Obama’s recent police-reform package, is the federal government. But increased aid from Washington means more federal control of municipal police departments, which in turn will force the departments to reallocate resources away from the communities in which they serve – and in which they are presumably building relationships—to bureaucrats in Washington.
Allocating more control to Washington will also increase the influence of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, which, like unions writ large, is generally opposed to most attempts at reform. Case in point: the union staunchly supports the Pentagon program that recycles military-grade equipment to local police departments. It seems, at least to me, that that program and the idea to equip all officers with body cameras lie on different sides of a political equation; one may come only at the expense of the other.
Police unions also lie at the heart of a second problem, more infantile than the first but no less important, which concerns how reform is implemented. As reported last week in the NY Post, the rate of police activity since the New York police union’s confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio is down significantly. The Post attributes the falling rates to, essentially, a striking police force. While the New York case is unique – the police union has felt attacked by de Blasio since the inception of his campaign – it demonstrates that the strong-armed imposition of reforms can potentially lead to net negative outcomes from a reformer’s perspective.
A third problem with police wearing body cameras is the issue of privacy. Camera technology will continue to improve, especially if and when large police departments enter the body camera market. Thus, it is not hard to imagine police-borne cameras that can capture and store all sorts of data.
Most people, at least now when game is one-sided, will happily sacrifice seemingly superfluous privacy for more police accountability. But as the national outrage over the NSA’s comprehensive, albeit impersonal, wiretapping program demonstrates, many folks happily trade the idea of privacy for the idea of safety – only until their own privacy is compromised.
To me, the bottom line is this: police departments, and their representative unions, are political entities, especially those operating in urban centers. They operate through political processes, which are defined by negotiation and compromise, and typically, although by no means always, produce optimal results when cranked carefully.
Any attempt at reform, if not initiated in collaboration with police departments, may compromise the very outcomes reform advocates so eagerly seek. The best path forward is prudence: allow the many pilot programs currently employed to continue, analyze their results, and reform accordingly.
Kevin Trainer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org