Police body cameras are being pushed as a solution to all the police woes. They sound great on paper: Every interaction with the public will be recorded, in a manner that is court-approved and tamper “resistant” – so if something gets out of hand the incident will be logged by the unblinking eye.
Sounds great, right? Keep the cops accountable. Wrong! Accountable cops is the last thing any of us should want. I’ll explain: Those cameras are going to be recording everything that the cop does. If you knew everything you did at work was recorded, would you continue working the way you do today? Do you do everything in your job exactly the way your employer wants you to do it? Have you ever bent the rules to help resolve a problem for a customer?
20 years ago, a truck driver filled out his logbook with a pen and signed off on it. Sometimes he might run a little over the mandatory 18 hours, if he was trying to get to a good restaurant, or maybe he overslept and needed to make up time, whatever. That log book might show a little slack, but I’m sure no one ever filled out the log saying they drove for 28 hours straight, even if they were verbally instructed to do it. Then Qualcomm introduced OmniTracs, which brought real-time satellite tracking and reporting to the trucking industry (look for a little white dome on roof of the cab). Now, every time the driver started the vehicle it was logged, along with every mile and every stop. No more paper logbook. I’m sure the industry got a real wake-up call when they started seeing the true logbooks. Ever wonder why you see trucks lined up at on-ramps and rest areas? Because the rule (law) says they have to stop, now. Ever try sleeping in a bed that’s tilted 10 degrees downhill? Wouldn’t it be nicer to drive an extra hour or so to the truck stop and have a hot meal and a shower before bed? The “unblinking eye” of the Qualcomm box doesn’t care about meals and showers, only that you’ve been driving for 18 hours.
When police cameras are recording, managers will have a powerful tool for evaluating the beat cop. The cop will be second-guessed on just about everything they do. Let’s say he pulls over someone for speeding. He smells beer and so has him blow a breathalyzer test. He reads just over .08, but he’s only a few blocks from home, and out with the wife and kids (heck, let’s say it’s his birthday -which the cop would know from checking his license). So he decides to cut him some slack and give him a warning for the speeding. No harm, no foul. I’m sure (despite what we are led to believe by the Internet and the media) it happens thousands of times a day, at least outside the cities.
Now add a camera. 0.08 is over the legal limit for alcohol. It’s not a grey area: 0.07 is ok to drive. 0.08 is over the limit. The speed limit is 65MPH. The radar showed the vehicle traveling at 70MPH. Maybe his immediate supervisor reviewing his body camera footage will cut him some slack, but if it happens too many times, someone somewhere is going to want to know why it continues. When push comes to shove, the supervisor will stop defending his beat cop and side with management, because that’s what supervisors do (I know, I used to be one). That beat cop will hand out tickets for everything, without regard to human frailty or exception. That’s for the judge to decide, right? And God help him if the cop is on camera doing something he shouldn’t because he’s trying to help out. That’s right out the door. Let them bleed out while waiting for a “qualified” medic to show up.
For what it’s worth, I’m not especially enamored with citizens recording police either, at least if they have to inform the cop they are recording. You go ahead and record your interactions with the police, but keep me out of it. Again, it’s the third party getting the opportunity to add their opinion. The only third party should be a judge (if it comes to that), not the public. Our legal system was built on the idea that a lot of officer discretion was not only desirable, but necessary. How many times did you do something that was illegal, but not intentional? Well, the law doesn’t say “…but only if he actually meant to do it,” it just says it’s wrong. Good police know that and will keep it in mind when dealing with people. This is why we laughed at Barney Fife and respected Andy Griffith.
Once you take that power away from the front line cops, it’s all over.