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Citizen Power - Part II: Those Cop-Cameras…
David Brin   Aug 30, 2014  

Continuing our series on co-veillance, sousveillance and general citizen empowerment, on our streets… last time we discussed our right and ability to use new instrumentalities to expand our ability to view, record and hold others accountable, with the cameras in our pockets.

Now -- the other side of this accountability equation. 

Some ideas seem far-out "scifi"... until suddenly they become mainstream.  In the wake of the recent Ferguson, Missouri riots, a petition asking for a "Mike Brown Law" that would require all state, county, and local police to wear cameras. has achieved almost 150,000 signatures. Last August, a federal judge called for the NYPD to wear such cameras when she ruled that the department's stop-and-frisk policy violated people's constitutional rights. But as A.J. Vicens discusses in Mother Jones: "Putting Body Cameras on Cops Is Hardly a Cure-All for Abuses."

Meanwhile, Taser International (TASR), which makes the most widely used police body cameras, increased its bookings for its video unit almost twofold last quarter, signing deals with the police departments of Winston-Salem, N.C., Spartanburg County, S.C., and San Diego. The company provides both hardware and data services related to the cameras and now works with 20 major cities in one capacity or another.
Groups that would normally be skeptical of authorities videotaping everything support the idea of camera-equipped cops. The American Civil Liberties Union published a white paper last year supporting the use of the cameras. “Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened,” says Jay Stanley, the author of the ACLU’s paper, referring to the Ferguson shooting.
“While no technical solution would eliminate misconduct completely, cameras do seem as if they could help reduce the legal bill. A study published last April showed that complaints against police dropped 88 percent in Rialto, Calif., after that city began randomly assigning officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, use-of-force incidents dropped 59 percent," writes Joshua Brustein: In Ferguson's Aftermath, Will Police Adopt Body Cameras?
See how this was forecast -- pretty much all of it -- in The Transparent Society.  And what did I predict will happen, when both cops and the citizens they stop are armed with cameras, all the time?
Better safety, better law, less injustice... but it will also be the dawn of a Golden Age of Sarcasm.

But you can tell it's all arrived when the punditry class finally notices... 

The topic is attracting attention from journalists and essayists, some thoughtful and some paranoid.   For example, Martin Kaste, on NPR, appraised how police cams can be problematic if department policies are confusing, or if it is left up to the officer when to record. Also: “there's the matter of the 30-second buffer. When an officer presses record, the camera saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment, but not the audio. The manufacturer designed the buffer to protect the privacy of police officers — and to appeal to resistant police unions — but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident.”
See my earlier posting: You Have the Right to Record Police, where I discuss the legal basis for a citizen's right to record police interactions in a public setting.

Reihan Salam, writing in Slate, touted the many benefits of police body cameras, and pointed out: "Our capacity to remember past events is notoriously faulty. There is a universal human tendency to fixate on some things while neglecting others. Video recordings can help correct for these deficiencies."
But Sarah Libby, writing for the Atlantic’s CityLab, complains that even if the officer who shot Brown was wearing a body camera, the footage wouldn't necessarily clear up any of the questions the public—or even the victims and their families—have about how things unfolded, at least not right away. And maybe not ever.  In her article --  Even When Police Do Wear Cameras, Don't Count on Seeing the Footage” – she discusses procedural obstacles to public access:
“Here in San Diego, our scandal-plagued police department has begun outfitting some officers with body cameras, and the City Council has approved a plan to roll out hundreds more…. That's because the department claims the footage, which is captured by devices financed by city taxpayers and worn by officers on the public payroll, aren't public records. Our newsroom's request for footage from the shootings under the California Public Records Act was denied. Once footage becomes part of an investigation, the department says it doesn't have to release them."

She quotes Joshua Chanin, a San Diego State professor who has studied transparency measures in police departments across the country. "There are enough instances of cameras 'not working,' footage having gone missing, cops 'forgetting' to turn them on, etc., that rules in place to punish officers who tamper with cameras, erase video are perhaps the most important part of the equation."

But Sarah Libby  suggests: “The footage their officers record will never show up on YouTube and go viral. Nor will it help fill in the gaps when a major crime leaves lots of unanswered questions. Crime victims or their families may never get to see and hear what the devices recorded."

All told, alas, Libby's is a fairly shallow assessment. We need accountability, which will come (after some kinks are ironed out) when supervisors and Internal Affairs divisions and defense attorneys get reliable access to cop-cam records, even if the raw footage -- for some legitimate reasons -- falls short of being press-accessible "public records."  

We do not require youtubing of everything, in order to gain the accountability benefits. 

Indeed, once those benefits are secured, it will be time to swivel and show a little sympathy  for public servants on our streets who have one of the most difficult jobs imaginable!  Under a constant spotlight, they will eliminate the crude thugs and bullies in their ranks and keep ratcheting up professionalism! But in return, how about a little pity? You do not need every little expectoration, crotch-scratching, muttered curse or private opinion blared on YouTube. When a hardworking officer pees into a water bottle in his patrol car, because there's been no time for a bathroom break, are you gonna demand we all look?  Come on. Go ahead and assign some ACLU types to scan the raw footage, okay? Only then... 

...when they are generally being good... can we back off from utter voyeurism?  Moderation, in all things.

Nevertheless, and returning to today's friable, fragile present.  We do need to insist that souseillance-co-veillance and accountability march ever forward!  We need our eyes!  And the cops -- heck all elites and all authorities... including ourselves -- must be supervised, whenever we assert power over others.
Moreover, I do agree with Libby's final assessment, regarding those cop-cameras:
 “If you want to make sure the world will be able to see footage of a cop or a criminal caught in the act, you're better off taking the video yourself.”


David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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