If you're old enough to remember life before smartphones and the Internet, then by now you're used to reading about real-life legal or political controversies that would've been impossibly unrealistic science fiction when you were a kid.
For example: Should on-duty police officers be required to wear cameras and microphones to record their interactions with the public? That used to be an utterly ridiculous question, in the days when audiovisual recordings could only be made with heavy, bulky and fragile equipment – no, of course police officers shouldn't be expected to do their jobs with hundred-pound movie cameras strapped to themselves. And there's no need to worry about any civil-liberty implications of such an impractical scenario, either.
But nowadays, at least where weight, size and mobility are concerned, wearing a body camera is hardly more difficult or intrusive than wearing a badge. (And some police cars have been outfitted with dashcams for many years now – though such cameras always have the ability to be turned off, or their video footage deleted or otherwise lost, should the police choose to arrange this.)
In the early 21st century, recording technology is exponentially cheaper and ubiquitous than ever before. In February 2013, when an asteroid collided with Earth's atmosphere and exploded several miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, it promptly became the most-viewed meteor strike in history, as countless Russian drivers went online to upload their spectacular dashcam recordings of the event.
But why did so many Russian drivers have dashcams in the first place? To protect themselves from insurance fraudsters, corrupt cops and other scam-based threats which under the Russian legal system can easily harm innocent people, threats which can be abated if the innocent party has audiovisual proof of what happened, rather than having to rely on a “he said/she said” situation. Hence, the Russian popularity of dashcams set to automatically record every time the car operates.
Here in America our legal system differs in many ways from Russia's, but one thing both systems do share in common is that drivers and other innocent citizens can find themselves at legal risk, if they're accused of wrongdoing and have no audiovisual proof of their innocence. If you did one thing but a cop says you did something else, who is a judge likely to believe?
And, especially in the past few months, there has been a growing controversy over police trustworthiness: How honest and reliable are the men and women empowered to arrest or even kill Americans in the name of public safety?
Last summer, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown, and nobody except Wilson and a small handful of eyewitnesses knows exactly what happened: Did Brown attack Wilson, as he and his supporters claim, or did Wilson overreact and kill a black kid who was trying to surrender, as Brown's family (and some eyewitnesses) claim? In the absence of video showing the shooting and the events immediately leading to it, there's no way to say for certain.
Certain police departments across the country have already adopted the use of body cameras. In Rialto, California, police chief Tony Farrar tried outfitting his officers with cameras for a year and, according to a study conducted by the non-profit Police Foundation (“Advancing policing through innovation & science”), the result was “more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12 months prior to the experiment.”
This week, President Obama asked Congress for $263 million in funding to provide body cameras to various police forces across the country, in hope of reducing the “simmering distrust” which exists between police forces and minority communities not just in Ferguson, but across the United States.
But for many police forces, it appears the main thing keeping cameras off their officers isn't lack of money, but lack of desire to record officers' on-duty behavior.
In Boston, for example, Mayor Martin Walsh said he opposed the use of police body cameras, on the grounds that community outreach and improved education are better ways to improve relations between Bostonians and their police.
Despite such opposition, the widespread use of police body cameras might be inevitable, given all the other technological changes and advances. Anne McKenna, a Baltimore attorney and expert on electronic surveillance and privacy law, went so far as to tell the Washington Post that “the body camera is here to stay.” (Though it might've been more accurate, and a bit more poetic to boot, had she said: “The body camera is on its way, then once its here it's here to stay.” For now, body cameras remain a statistical rarity, among the number of American police on duty.)
To be fair: Police who don't want their on-duty behavior monitored are hardly the only ones opposed to mass police use of body cameras; ordinary privacy advocates (who in other contexts tend to disagree with police, where recording issues are concerned) have some qualms as well.
Consider the already existing controversy over police use of license-plate scanners: since police and privately owned security cameras in various jurisdictions can already scan and keep record of every license plate they see, this means that for all practical purposes, anytime an ordinary driver leaves home, his or her movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to – well, anybody willing to pay.
Same thing with regular security cameras: visit a store and your visage is caught on their security camera. Walk down the street and you might be recorded by a variety of different security cameras.
If you're also recorded anytime you come into sight range of a police officer, that can help protect you if the cop misbehaves, perhaps. Otherwise, it merely ensures that there's one more database collecting information about you and your whereabouts – and since police are public employees, there's the chance that their body camera recordings will become public record – not just the recordings of their behavior during disputed incidents, but all recordings.
Here's an unpleasant hypothetical to consider: Suppose you become a violent-crime victim, and call the police after you're attacked. The officers (who in this instance are thoroughly professional, pleasant and helpful, by the way) nonetheless are seeing you at your absolute worst: you've just been attacked, and now that the police are here, they're basically recording the aftermath of the worst moment of your life.
Jay Stanley, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that police video “sometimes captures people at the worst moments of their lives …. "You don't want to see videos of that uploaded to the Internet for titillation and gawking.”