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Saturday, August 23, 2014

NPR on police body cams

I was interviewed for an NPR Weekend Edition story on police body cameras and whether they represent any sort of great solution to the problem of figuring out what happens in police-public encounters. As expected, I provide the "no, video is not some all-showing neutral observer" perspective.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 23, 2014 at 02:14 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


It's relevant to thinking about whether to implement cameras, how to implement them, and what to do with the information after. Again (and again), I was not opposing body-cams; I was opposing the rhetoric surrounding them. And trying to remind everyone (police, courts, etc.) of the other issues that are going to come up.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 25, 2014 12:12:00 PM

"As expected, I provide the "no, video is not some all-showing neutral observer" perspective."

I'm sorry, but what relevance is that? The relevant question is 'better than the current situation?'

Posted by: Barry | Aug 25, 2014 11:20:06 AM

I appreciate the comments and discussion.

The reveal that the professor doesn't think the cams are a panacea really doesn't do much for me and I think -- as was done if you read further -- the details are what counts. Few things are a panacea.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 25, 2014 11:07:07 AM

Thanks for the comments. I hope I came across in the piece as agreeing that, on balance, cameras of all sorts (body, dashboards, bystander iPhones) are a good idea. My point for the piece was more about the rhetoric that surrounds the push for body cams--that they solve everything, that they tell us, with certainty what happened, etc. That's not true. Which doesn't mean cameras are not beneficial and the more cameras we have the better, just that we shouldn't overstate it. And giving police bodycams does not obviate the need to allow the public to record.

Nancy, I am coming to doubt the deterrence benefits. We've had several incidents where officers have acted entirely inappropriately while being recorded from their own cameras.

As to whether it would help with figuring out the Brown shooting: It depends on what the video actually seems to show. But my guess is that we would see the usual divide (reflecting the same preferences Kahan, et al. talked about) over the video. And, unfortunately, I would expect the Court in the eventual § 1983 action to short-circuit civil litigation if the video even hints at some justification for the shooting.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 24, 2014 3:13:35 PM

Really interesting segment -- thanks for posting, Howard.

It seems to me that the issue is this: On the one hand we have the problems Howard points out -- for example, that the video evidence will become the "star of the show," even in situations where it provides an incomplete or even misleading account of events. There's a lot of evidence that when video exists it takes center stage. Even the Supreme Court is susceptible to this kind of thinking: just look at the recent decisions in Plumhoff v. Rickard and Scott v. Harris.

On the the other hand, we have the benefits that twbb mentions -- that simply wearing the camera may deter police brutality, and that people are less likely to file frivolous complaints against officers if they know that the encounter was recorded.

Given this tension, whether the cameras are a net gain strikes me as an empirical question that's difficult to answer. I wonder whether the best course of action might vary by jurisdiction. For example, in a community where trust between police and citizens is severely compromised, a police department's voluntary decision to require all officers to wear body cameras could do a lot to help to improve officer-citizen relations.

Howard, I would be interested to know whether you think body camera footage would help or hurt the effort to reach a conclusion about the Mike Brown shooting.

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Aug 24, 2014 2:33:00 PM

Police body cams have already significantly reduced complaints about police brutality in areas where they are used, so whether they are useful or not in determining what happened, the perception of their usefulness has already had an impact. Furthermore, in many cases they really can show which witness' account is more accurate (was the suspect's hands in the air?). So yes, I do think they represent a great solution. Will they always be useful? Of course not.

Posted by: twbb | Aug 23, 2014 8:11:34 PM

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