Hard Talk: Police Accountability

Will police body cameras improve accountability?

Yes: Shira A. Scheindlin; No: Peter K. Manning

In this issue:
Illustrations by Wesley Bedrosian

Will the widespread use of body cameras improve police accountability? Yes

Shira A. Scheindlin

People behave differently when they know they are being watched—and police are no exception.

As a trial judge, I have heard hundreds of cases involving charges of false arrest and excessive force by the police. All of these cases turn on credibility. The victim (assuming he or she is alive) tells the story from his or her perspective, and the police officers (often more than two) tell their story. The jury is left in the difficult and uncomfortable position of deciding which side is telling the truth and which side is providing false testimony.

One example makes the point. In a criminal case in Chicago, five police officers swore under oath that they pulled a suspect over after he failed to use a turn signal. One officer testified that when he asked the driver to produce his license and registration, he smelled marijuana and directed the suspect to leave the car and stand by the trunk as the vehicle was searched. During the search, officers found nearly a pound of marijuana in a backpack on the back seat of the car. Based on the discovery of the marijuana, the driver was arrested.

The suspect testified to a starkly different version of events. He swore that he used his turn signal, was never asked for his license and registration, and that the marijuana was not in a backpack on the back seat of the car, but was hidden under the seat. Then the suspect’s lawyer got lucky. At the last minute, he subpoenaed and obtained a video that had been recorded automatically by the police car—which the police witnesses must have forgotten about. The video showed that immediately after being stopped, the suspect was removed from his car, frisked and handcuffed. The search of the car occurred after the arrest.

The judge found that all five officers had lied and engaged in “outrageous conduct.” She called it a conspiracy to lie, and suppressed both the arrest and the fruits of the search. Without that video, it would have been hard for a judge to find that five police officers had lied under oath while a guy caught with a pound of marijuana had told the truth.

But that is exactly what happened.

The point should be clear: people behave differently when they know they are being watched, and police are no exception. Officers wearing body cameras will be less aggressive and more respectful when they interact with members of the community. They will also be more reluctant to use force unless it is necessary to protect themselves and the public. While body-worn police cameras may not be a panacea, they will not only lead to a reduction in the use of unnecessary or excessive force by police officers, but will also be beneficial for both the police and the community.

Evidence supporting this belief comes from jurisdictions in which experiments with the use of body-worn cameras have produced encouraging data. In one such jurisdiction—Rialto, California—after the police force had worn body cameras for a full year, citizen complaints against police declined by 60 percent. Other jurisdictions that have implemented body cameras have seen similar results. In Mesa, Arizona, for example, use-of-force complaints decreased by 75 percent for officers using cameras in a pilot program.1 In Nampa, Idaho, they dropped by 24 percent.2

Another important statistic from the Rialto study is the number of incidents that resulted in the use of force by an officer, which dropped by 88 percent after the use of body cameras. Officers who were not equipped with cameras were twice as likely to use force as officers who were. Even more tellingly, when officers wore cameras, every incident of physical contact was initiated by a member of the public, but in the absence of cameras, 29 percent of the incidents involving physical force were initiated by the officer.3

Such studies have taken on increased significance in the wake of controversy over the deaths of several African Americans at the hands of police over the past year. This includes Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have called for greater use of body-worn cameras by police officers. But even before these incidents, I concluded that such cameras could play a role in curtailing abuses of the long-standing police practice in New York of stopping and frisking young men—most of them African American—on suspicion of criminal behavior. As part of my August 2013 ruling in Floyd v. City of New York that the disproportional use of stop and frisk constituted a pattern of racial profiling and violated the U.S. Constitution, I ordered the New York City Police Department to conduct a trial in selected precincts requiring officers to wear body cameras.

The use of body cameras will also protect police officers. No longer will a person be able to claim that a police officer punched or kicked him without cause, when in fact it was that person who initiated the encounter by threatening or attacking the police officer. The contemporaneous record of what occurred should make it clear whether the officer was justified in using force. Everyone has a right to act in self defense. A video presents an unbiased account of the events. It has no motive to lie and no stake in the outcome. It merely records the event as it happens. If a police officer acts lawfully, then he should not be wrongly accused, forced to defend himself and risk a punishment he does not deserve. The camera will provide his defense.

There are some drawbacks to the use of body cameras—such as privacy concerns for both officers and the citizens they encounter, the storage of data capturing images of innocent people, the possible tampering with the images, and the accuracy of the images (with issues relating to lighting, lens clarity, movement, and angles). However, there is far more benefit than harm associated with their use. Once people know their actions are being recorded, their behavior changes. I am confident the widespread use of body cameras will reduce the amount of excessive force by police officers and will improve their relationships with the citizens they encounter and protect.

 Given existing technologies, we should have the best evidence available at our fingertips. And speaking of fingers, millions of fingerprints are kept on file in case the police need to identify a suspect. Today, DNA databases are also available to law enforcement. Everyone agrees that DNA should be collected so long as storage and access are both carefully regulated. There is no reason that contemporaneous recordings of police encounters should not be treated the same way.

Read Peter K. Manning's argument here.


Will the widespread use of body cameras improve police accountability? No

Peter K. Manning

New technologies won't change police behavior unless there's a corresponding change in law enforcement culture.

Information technology is shaped by the organization that uses it. It is also shaped by the practices of the people who use it in their work. New kinds of information technology, or ways of processing work-related information, are thought to make work routines more efficient. In police work—just as in the work of doctors, lawyers and engineers—there is a persistent wish to cut through the complexity and get to the “heart of the problem” with a practical solution.

I would call it the “silver bullet fantasy.” The arguments for police body cameras fall into that category.

Police officers are pragmatic. They seek the simplest, quickest and most effective technology to perform their jobs. At the same time, they value their freedom from close supervision and are wary of “big brother.” These basic elements of law enforcement culture suggest we should be skeptical about whether the introduction of body-worn cameras will effectively address the concerns many critics have had—especially since the deaths of unarmed civilians in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, and elsewhere—about the lack of police accountability.

A historical perspective puts this in context. Since the late nineteenth century, politicians and police supervisors have sought to apply information technology (IT) to their work in order to improve response times and increase transparency. Consider, for example, the call box, the radio, the two-way radio, the computer-based dispatch, and the now widespread use of social media by police departments to inform citizens of their activities. More recently, cameras have been placed in patrol cars and closed-circuit technology video devices have been installed in more public spaces. 

But often, IT is more about the efficient management of information systems than about enhancing the quality of police work. By tradition and legal precedent, policing is a secret and protected craft. In many respects, judges and prosecutors are quite happy not to know what “processes” ensued prior to any matter brought to their attention. 

Let’s be clear. Observational research of police officers interacting with citizens reveals that force beyond kicking, punching and pushing is not frequent.1 But the nature of the job makes unexpected violent episodes likely. Police are protected, sanctioned and even rewarded by having these uses of force—including lethal force—overlooked by law and tradition.2 Can we expect these uncertain, unexpected responses to be reduced or altered simply by being recorded? The technologies of any occupation are modified by the occupational culture, and the premise that a technology always reconfigures work in the expected way is false.  

It should surprise no one that when cameras or other devices are used to monitor patrol officers, they have responded by turning off cameras and microphones, by “forgetting” to turn them on or to insert fresh tapes, by changing the camera angle, and by deleting strips of images. Officers have also failed to replace tapes and have taped over previous recordings by reusing tapes. Departments amplify these practices by failing to properly supervise the processing of data. Even if there are rules about keeping cameras and microphones on, supervising officers may not regularly view and monitor the tapes, check officers’ use of them, maintain records of taping, or sanction officers who do not follow policies and procedures.3

These actions are forms of resistance to new IT, and they are rooted in the occupational culture of patrol officers. Any new surveillance technology is viewed with ambivalence. Although it could be argued that recordings of the officers’ words and actions protect the officer in internal investigations, civil suits or criminal charges, they could also reveal the everyday brutalities and incivilities that research has shown are routinely employed in policing in this country.4  

It has been proposed that miniature cameras worn on the uniform will increase accountability. This claim has no empirical basis. There has been little systematic research on the question. Police typically announce the success of innovations before they are evaluated. The police position generally is, “Why would we do it if we did not think it would improve things?” So, this begs the question: What would accountability-based body cameras mean?

There are two kinds of accountability: an in-advance definition of what is expected, and an after-the-fact justification for the decisions made. In policing, organizational accountability of either kind is an empty illusion because law enforcement is a profoundly conservative, stable and ossified institution. It has survived the community policing movement with little or no change in training, deployment, rewards systems, or management. The closest thing to true organizational accountability might be when the federal government places a department under a consent order for a specific pattern of abuses—for example, the Consent Decree Regarding the New Orleans Police Department in 2012.5 But even with such oversight, the same structure, supervision, training, rules, regulations, and protective mandate—the tacit agreement between society and the police that gives police latitude to define how best to do their jobs—remain unchanged.6

Consider why holding individual officers accountable in any case is problematic. The organizational structure gives officers significant discretion on patrol, and leaves them unsupervised with respect to when, how, why, and to what end they intervene in an incident. They are required after the fact to justify their actions—if they were known to the organization. But many actions are not recorded, or are labeled “action taken.” The tacit assumption within the police hierarchy is that you cannot easily judge individual decisions because “you had to be there” to understand.

This ideology makes investigations, and holding individual officers accountable, very difficult in practice.

Let us assume that there are few, if any, changes in the police organization except for the introduction of body cameras. If cameras are used, one might ask about the processing, use and management of the incredible number of hours of data that would be generated. How will they view, code, store, analyze, and apply these data? If you trust the police, you trust their words and deeds—it’s a contract.

The hope is that body cameras or statements by commissioners or chiefs regarding changes in policy will transform practices. But there is little evidence that top-down management policies or local and state legal rulings change police practices. Since supervision, training, rewards, and practices have not changed, what evidence is there to suggest that a camera on an officer’s lapel will change behavior?

Read Shira A. Scheindlin's argument here.


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