The reality that there is often tension between law enforcement bodies and the public is no secret, and it may be that new technology provides an opportunity to both reduce incidents of misconduct and increase transparency and accountability in police-public interactions.
Reports and accusations of police victimization of minority communities and general conduct emerge with relative frequency in many Western countries like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the most recent of which appears to be police-directed “humiliation” of mentally ill black men in suburban Detroit. The eradication of both these abusive incidents and the general friction (and growing alienation) between civilians and law enforcement have been the foci of 20th and 21st century policing reforms, such as the ‘Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy’ and other community-based policing systems. Whilst the objective of such policing measures is valuable, increased community involvement does not itself seem to resolve the underlying issues.
Physical assault, verbal harassment, racial abuse, and the use of excessive force by police officers are unfortunately commonplace. Notable incidents in recent memory include the alleged abuse of Mauro Demetrio in London, a similar event in Seattle with Martin Monetti, Jr., accusations of rape whilst on patrol in San Antonio, and numerous other cases. These do not include controversial fatal events like the shooting death of John T. Williams, and that of Mark Duggan, whose death at least significantly helped spark the 2011 London riots. (I feel I must note here that the point of this article is not to state firmly that these deaths or incidents were examples of excessive force, etc., but rather to highlight the prevalence of these events both in action and in relation to public consciousness).
The notoriety of some of these incidents clearly stems from their visibility; the prevalence of mobile phone cameras makes recording and disseminating videos of police abuse easier than ever. However, the onus in a just society should not be on the public to track and publicize abuse and on the police to merely react to problems with specific law enforcement officials or within police institutions as a whole.
One solution, the use of lapel cameras as part of the police uniform, is the new face of direct police reform, having been implemented in small communities in the UK and the United States. The use of the cameras, which are small enough to attach to the front of a police uniform or sunglasses, is also being debated in other jurisdictions. As the use of this technology is new and relatively atypical, there are certain implementation strategies and facets that need a degree of refinement. For instance, the cameras used by the Staffordshire force only record when activated, leaving a certain degree of discretion to the officers, potentially limiting the effectiveness of the campaign. Whether similar cameras should run constantly or be activated when an officer is interacting with a member of the public is an issue that demands both debate and resolution.
This nascent program has already been lauded for achieving remarkable results, despite being in its infancy. The city of Rialto, California has claimed that, despite cameras not being used across the entirety of its police force, the program reduced complaints against police officers by 88 percent within the first year, citing in part the supposition that both law enforcement officials and civilians behave better when they know they on film.
The use of wearable cameras may not prove to be a panacea for police misconduct, nor is the implementation of such a campaign without justified criticism. Whilst the ACLU has come out in support of similar measures, with the right privacy regulation and accountability, other civil liberties organizations have suggested the disadvantages of increased public surveillance would likely outweigh any benefit of such a program. Moreover, as the ACLU states in their analysis, it is easy to see how continuous recording might be stressful on the individual officer and make individuals reticent to approach officers in certain circumstances.
Clearly, any such program needs to be implemented with transparent and strong privacy guidelines, given that lapel cameras could record vulnerable people and private environments. However, given that many law enforcement officials utilize ‘dash-cams’ and other recording technology already, it would be not be a significant stretch to expand existing systems to cover new types of technology. Larger expansion is certainly necessary to increase accountability and access to all recorded materials so that critical recordings are not destroyed before or during investigations, but this reform that needs to be addressed through a greater institutional context.