Who Watches the Watchmen?

That’s the third reference now, for those keeping track.

In an ideal world, the murder of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, would be a tragic but isolated incident. However, in reality it is simply yet another case where a police or security officer, empowered by a sense of authority, took the life of a black man (or child) into his own hands and expected to get away with it.

If one has the stomach for it, one can find videos of not only killings by police, but innumerable beatings and harassment. Often times these videos are taken by hidden cameras, without police knowledge, as it is fairly a common (illegal) policy for police to insist that cameras may not be used to record them. Often in sensitive situations they use every tool available to them, including violence, to prevent themselves from being recorded.

But even with video evidence of police brutality, cases are often dismissed while basic reports of excessive force go completely uninvestigated. Ostensibly the job of a police officer is to protect and serve the population, yet when a police officer violates that very mandate, why is there little to no accountability?

When police departments should, more than anyone else, desire to crack down on bad eggs, more often abuse and misconduct is covered up; perpetrators are protected, their names withheld, they’re put on leave (often paid leave), even for horrible abuses of authority.

I would personally argue that these problems exist due to a culture where deference to authority figures empowers internal attitudes among law enforcement officers of near-omnipotence. From that pedestal, they define their brothers and sisters in the Law, fellow officers and their families, as those to which they owe their allegiance and sympathy, and cast the people of their jurisdiction as “others,” especially those they presume likely to commit crime, with or without evidence.

Not that my personal understanding matters. What is important is minimizing, and if possible, eliminating, unnecessary police violence. A possible answer here, perhaps unintuitively, is surveillance.

http://www.parsac.org/parsac-www/pdf/Bulletins/14-005_Report_BODY_WORN_CAMERAS.pdf

Our constitutionally monarchial friends across the pond have recently begun pushing for a measure which would mandate the use of “Body-Worn Cameras,” or “Body Cameras,” for certain police officers. They’ve not only been trialled there, but here as well, with some dramatic results (as seen in the report above). Although the sample size is small, body-worn cameras on police seem to have a predictable effect: they reduce accusations, and by extension, cases, of police brutality.

The benefits are actually broader than that, including better evidence for prosecutions and money saved from a reduced need for investigation and court fees (assuming the department in question catered to such considerations faithfully before). The above report enumerates the various pros sufficiently, as well as some of the cons. The ACLU has weighed in with their justified concerns as well, but overall it appears body-worn cameras could be an effective and permanent answer to the intolerable problem of police brutality.

However, it comes back to the matter of surveillance. Is it too much?

I say, cautiously, no. Some day, body-worn cameras may be used by all police, and until that point their use should be overtly advertised to ensure everyone affected is fully informed. However, the mere presence of police officers tends to affect people’s behavior anyway, and when an officer enters the scene they make clear that direct government representation has been extended to the location. As an individual with the authority to invoke probable cause and conduct an arrest, and someone likely to report their encounters to a government database, a police officer, body-cam or no, is already a form of human government surveillance. What the camera alters, or truly, improves, is the accuracy and authenticity of the surveillance police officers already provide.

As fellow humans, police officers have faces and names. This puts them in a separate league from the faceless, nebulous agencies which spy on our emails and phone calls, generally without our awareness. They can not record anywhere, any time, at any range: they can only record more faithfully what they already see. Who holds them accountable? Essentially, the truth that they themselves personally record.

Obviously there are questions when it comes to the agency of officers to operate the cameras, and how to deal with unofficial police interactions (bathroom visits, personal phone calls, and the like), as well as encounters of a sensitive nature, like embarrassing but non-criminal encounters, domestic violence, and investigation of home interiors. However, these can be solved with reasonable and responsible policies and regulations, which the ACLU has also recommended.

Michael Brown’s death should not have happened, but it cannot be reversed. However, the justified response of anger to that death (and many others at the hands of police), if carefully honed to a precise and deliberate point, can help spearhead a campaign to search for meaningful solutions to this tragic problem and affect positive change.

Are worn body cameras one such solution? I say it’s certainly worth an earnest effort to find out.

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