Let’s Talk it Out, Not Tech it Out: No Need for Police Body Cameras

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown, and other reports of police misconduct, the Obama administration has requested over 260 million dollars for police body cameras and training.  Along with funding for body cameras, the administration has also announced a new task force that would develop strategies for “21st century policing”.

“This challenge of strengthening trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve has been laid bare in Ferguson in a pretty dramatic way,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.

The program, called the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program, would provide over 50,000 small devices to be placed on the lapel of officers.

Keep the task force.  Ditch the cameras.

I know the public will see the cameras as the more efficacious remedy.  They’ll judge the task force as just another bureaucratic igloo – a place where suits hide from the cold, judgmental winds of the public, never having to do anything substantive.

On the contrary, it is the cameras that will be of little use.  Cameras will cause more harm than good, and it is (potentially) the task force that will help address some of the real problems illustrated by events in Ferguson.

Let me explain…

Four Reasons

First, money.  This is not a one time purchase.   Cameras will need to be serviced and upgraded routinely.  The program, as with all programs, will expand and grow.  Newer, more expensive cameras will be sought after.  More police departments will request them.  That quarter of a billion dollars will mushroom in no time.

Second, body cameras can increase the violent interactions between police and black and brown people.  The camera will become a mediating technology, obstructing the human connection between police and civilian.  The police will be, in some measure, liberated from the burden of evaluating social context and using their judgement.  The result, instead of preventing violence, will be to provide a license to law enforcement to use whatever level of violence is lawful.

Consider a confrontation between a police officer and a young Hispanic male, sans camera.  In assessing the situation he will need to take into account the history he may have had with the kid, the culture of the neighborhood, the gestalt of the times, and so on.  A police officer fitted with a body camera can still do that, but he or she is less compelled to do so.  He can ask himself a series of by the book questions, and if the answer is affirmative, he can shoot.  And its all on camera, exonerating him.

We don’t have to look very far to see how technology releases the burden of thinking.  E-mail allows people to communicate more.  It is so easy to “shoot someone an email”.  Pun intended.  However, what this does is relieve people of the cognitive burden of massaging relationships.  Students email me all kinds of ludicrous excuses as to why they did not complete any given assignment.  They are relieved of the burden of standing in front of me and manufacturing sincerity. They don’t need to think two or three moves ahead, getting their story right just in case I ask a few probing questions.  The technology mediates the communication and muffles the complexity of social interaction.

Third, as a nation we are already dealing with the mistake of giving too much power of surveillance to government bodies.  Have we forgotten how government agencies, empowered by the Patriot Act, overextended their reach?   First it was about spying on terrorists in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  That freedom to spy extended to all American citizens.  Most Americans, including senators like Ron Wyden, were appalled when we discovered that the NSA was collecting our phone calls and as much Internet traffic as they could.

Fourth, and most importantly, the problems between police and minority youth are ultimately sociological, not technological.  The stitching needed to mend this tear in social relationships must be made of norms, values, and beliefs, not convex lenses and computer chips.  The lack of trust between police officers and minority youths is one grounded in race.  That is what is powering the Ferguson protests.  Body cameras are not addressing that problem.

If we suggest that police wear body cameras to record their interactions, who is to say that those cameras won’t be used to record people for other reasons?  The White House says that the cameras would “bridge mistrust between law enforcement and the public”. I don’t buy that at all.  Instead, I see people in communities constantly worrying that their actions are being recorded, to be viewed by police at a later time.

Let’s Talk it Out, Not Tech it Out

The administration announced two remedies – a task force on 21st century policing and the purchasing of body cameras for law enforcement.  Of the two options, I prefer the task force.  At least there is a chance of working towards a real remedy.

The problems laid bare by the sad death of Michael Brown are not at the core technological but sociological.  It is so often the case that police officers and the people they are sworn to protect were born and raised in vastly different environments.  The lack of trust, the friction, the violence – it all begins there, and is a consequence of a racialized society, where communities and cultural consumption are coded by color.

The problems will not be solved through recording everything.  They can only be solved through a breaking down of the barrier between “us” and “them” – a dissolution of the unconscious tendency  to see someone dark as dangerous, or see law enforcement as adversaries by default.

Maybe we don’t need a national conversation about race.  That has always been a little too abstract and amorphous to me.  But we do need to understand  how racial categories and our racialized society affect interactions at the everyday level. We have to talk it out – in classrooms, in informal settings, and yes, maybe even in “task forces”.  To please the technocrats, we can even record these conversations with small cameras on our lapels.

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