Why body cameras for police are a bad idea

Money spent on police cameras means less for crime prevention, social supports, police education

Michael Spratt

Police body cameras are a bad idea.

You might remember when Toronto police chief Mark Saunders pushed for body cameras: “I have been pushing hard. I want this done now. The people are talking, they want this. I want this.” 

He was wrong.

You might remember when I advocated for police cameras.

I was wrong, too.

Shortly after I wrote that it was time we turned the cameras of the surveillance state toward the police — not for their protection but for ours — I spoke with Desmond Cole about some of the common misconceptions about police accountability measures. And over the past four years, after talking to people who are the most affected by police violence and abuse, I changed my mind about police body cameras.

The seductive argument is that body cameras are needed to police the police. I get it; there is no question that police officers violate rights. Despite denials by the boys in blue, systemic racism is real. And we have seen examples of police abuse exposed in court, on social media, and in the lived experiences of racialized people.

Police body cameras would expose all of this maleficence, some argue.

So, ask yourself, why are the police now in favour of cameras?

Police don’t want the system to change. They don’t want their budgets cut. They don’t want to lose power. They don’t want stricter accountability. They don’t want more training about rights and racism. They don’t want to be defunded. They want things to stay the same.

Police body cameras are a tool of the status quo. With magic cameras, nothing else needs to change.

But here is the real con: cameras not only prop up a broken system but they also carry a load of new problems.

First, body cameras are expensive. Montreal's public safety committee estimated that outfitting the city’s cops with cameras would cost $17.4 million over five years with around $20 million annually in associated costs. The Toronto Police Services Board approved the purchase of 2,350 body cameras at a cost of more than $34 million over five years.

Every dollar spent on police cameras means less money for crime prevention, social supports, and police education.

And it is unclear that body cameras will even help in reducing the instances of police misconduct. A year-long trial in Montreal found that body cameras had little impact on police interventions; and a randomized controlled trial involving 2,224 Metropolitan Police Department officers in Washington, DC showed that body cameras had a very small and statistically insignificant effect on police use of force and civilian complaints.

The bottom line is that in many cases body cameras just don’t live up to the hype.

There is also little in the way of policies and procedures to regulate how the data captured by police body cameras will be stored and used. If the whole reason for cameras in the first place is because of a lack of trust in law enforcement, are we content to hand them our data?

Will police need warrants to access the camera data? With every officer equipped with a camera the surveillance state can be everywhere. These videos, originally designed to keep officers in check, will inevitably turn into an investigative tool to be used against the public.

And who will appear on video most often? The same overpoliced communities who already experience disproportionate levels of police violence and abuse. Proponents of videos seem content to give up the privacy and rights of others rather than themselves.

Can a victim of police abuse access the video? Will it be stored offsite or at the police station? Will the data be encrypted? How long will it be stored for?

What happens when a police officer turns off his camera? Because this will happen. The camera will “malfunction” or be “accidently” obscured.

None of these questions have been answered. But we seem to be so eager to hand over millions of dollars to large pro-police corporations like Axon, one of the largest makers of body cameras and “smart weapons.”

The secret the police don’t want us to know is that we are the chickens and they are the foxes. And for a brief moment the foxes convinced me that it was a good idea to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up the status quo, instead of fixing a broken system from the ground up.

I was blindly happy to fix a symptom of rot and disease instead of looking for real accountability cures.

Desmond Cole told me on my podcast that body cameras are a liberal panacea for people who are not really interested in decreasing the police’s power.

Cole was right. I was wrong to jump to an opinion without thinking things through.

It is said that sometimes a hypocrite is just a man in the process of changing.

My views on police body cameras have changed.

We should not be content with a flawed and expensive system to maybe document police violence after it has happened.

We should insist on reforming policing to prevent these abuses from occurring in the first place.

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