Police Video Is Next Step For Democracy

All police who have encounters with the public should wear body cams, and they should be on all the time.

By Cliff Roth

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Video/Imaging DesignWire
(12/2/2015 10:17:02 PM)

Growing up in New York City made me well aware of the “Move on, there’s nothing here” attitude of the police. As a rebellious child of the 1960s, I felt it not just a right, but also a citizen’s duty to stop and observe whenever we see the police arresting or stopping someone on the street. But the police did not usually appreciate this attitude, and would often chase us onlookers away.

Given today’s ease of smartphone video recording, compared with 1991 when George Holliday made his pioneering Rodney King police beating video using a big clunky camcorder (which led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992), I’m frankly surprised there aren’t more citizen-recorded instances of police abuse surfacing. Then again, knowing how embarrassing these citizen cell phone videos are, perhaps the police are now much more careful about where and when they do the roughing up. Only the police forces’ own views, from their own body and dashboard cameras, can provide a true picture of what they’re doing.

As a journalist I’ve been covering police misconduct video since the days of Rodney King. About a decade ago when I started working as an editor for EETimes I wrote about how the stun gun industry was offering police forces the option to automatically record video whenever the stun gun is used (see Taser video missing from the debate). Not surprisingly, police forces were hardly salivating over this new feature.

Now, ten years and much unnecessary violence and racial disharmony later, police departments across America are equipping their forces with body cameras and police car cameras. But as the recent 400-day wait for the public to see the video of a teenage boy being senselessly shot down in Chicago demonstrates, the mere existence of these cameras and recording systems does not mean the public has any ability or right to see what their police forces are doing.

An excellent recent op-ed in The New York Times, The Real Police-Video Problem, written by a public defender, clarifies the logical next step: An independent storage system where the police are not in control of these recordings.  A public repository for police video is a great idea, but it doesn’t go far enough. It still leaves the police in charge of when to turn their cameras on, and as the same op-ed points out, often the cameras are turned off just when we need them most, when a cop confronts someone on the street.

In the early days of bodycam technology, issues of battery run time and storage limits almost necessitated the camera’s “on/off” switch. But nowadays, a camera that is left on for eight or ten hours a day with continuous recording is hardly an engineering challenge. The lithium-ion battery needed could be the size of a thick credit card, and the storage required would easily fit on a standard 64-GB SD camera memory card, with high definition video and sound.

All police who have encounters with the public should wear body cams, and they should be on all the time that the police are on duty, with the exception of bathroom breaks and any other personal time taken off during the day. Part of the job of being a police officer is being observed by the public, much the way a toll collector or traffic cop is constantly under observation. That’s the job.

There are plenty of other jobs out there where employees are monitored on camera all the time, such as at fast food restaurants and banks. Certainly the actions of a police officer are of equal or greater interest than what a Burger King employee is doing.

The assumption should be that these police body and dashboard cameras are always on, and whenever they’re turned off the incident must have an explanation. The recordings should be saved for a minimum of 90-days, and be accessible via court order in the short term (where the courts have plenty of experience balancing the need for a fair trial against the public’s right to know), or a freedom of information request in the long term.

Democracy is not about a dusty, yellowed piece of parchment with clever words, but an ongoing process of discovering self-governance. As new technologies and ways of thinking emerge, democracy progresses.

The separation of civilian, domestic police forces from external, foreign facing military forces was a major advance in democracy. In third-world countries the army is the police, but not here. Now, putting civilian police forces under constant, continuous public observation, via video technology, is an important next step forward for democracy.