The office water cooler heard a lot of concern regarding the police in America lately. A typical evening newscast would lead you to believe that police abuse of authority is a national crisis sparking public interest in accountability and legitimacy over the last two years. What is often overlooked, however, is that the majority of Americans express a great deal of respect for the police. Gallup polling has consistently shown rates at 60% or above since 1992. That is nearly a quarter of a century in which a sizable majority respects the legitimacy of authority exerted by police. Moreover, the US fairs well with other wealthy countries which consistently show that prosperity and effective policing go hand in hand. Yet, these same studies indicate that lack of confidence in the police is concentrated among disadvantaged groups, and not just in the United States. What this boils down to is the simple fact that concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic.
The media and federal government would lead you to believe otherwise. As we enter the brave new world of recorded interactions between the citizenry and police, policymakers and communities have identified body-worn cameras as a device capable of repairing the legitimacy of police in American communities. President Obama recently announced the “Body Worn Camera Partnership Program” which provides funding to departments to purchase body worn cameras. The President emphasized that such actions are necessary to alleviate the “simmering distrust” of the police as agents of social control in many communities.
But is on-officer video technology needed everywhere? The widespread support for body cams follows partly from the perception that body cameras are a necessary feature of legitimate authority. This suggests that departments which do not adopt cameras will be questioned. “If you don’t have cameras, what are you trying to hide?” Such logic rests on the assumption that body cameras will resolve issues of legitimacy and that all departments are struggling with the same problems. But this is simply not the case, as the crisis of legitimacy is a localized one: not all police departments suffer from such concerns. Departments adopt the cameras to solve existing organizational goals, in this case, transparency. But, not all departments are facing this as an organizational challenge. Most departments in most cities have high regard by citizens. However, as large departments adopt cameras to address existing organizational challenges, other departments will mimic those larger agencies to gain legitimacy, whether they need to or not. This is a basic problem of normative isomorphism, where organizations mimic other organizations to gain legitimacy.
So what? The problem is that cameras are not cheap, and these resources may be better spent elsewhere within the department or the in the city at large. As the famous economist Milton Freedman has been (incorrectly) credited with saying: there is “no free lunch,” meaning that any evaluation of a program should consider, not just the cost of the program, but the costs of not spending the money on other programs. In addition to the cost of body cameras themselves, there are the far larger costs of video storage (if you pay a monthly fee for cloud or local backup of your own media you know what I mean), time for supervisors to audit and review files (how many of you actually clean out old media you don’t need in your computer?), back-end retrieval and video tagging software, and redaction. Equipping every officer with a camera that is on at all citizen contacts is ideal if you own stock in Taser or electronic storage, but may not be best for smaller departments with limited resources. Those costs may be better spent by the department or even on other public services (e.g. schools, roads, health).
Technological innovations, however well-meant, have non-pecuniary costs as well. Requiring police to turn on video cameras whenever they interact with citizens will increase the likelihood of capturing rare use-of-force events, but the tradeoff is that they can mechanize natural human interactions that are the cornerstone of building trusting relationships and cultural sensitivity. In the wake of White House’s recent announcement to limit police use of military equipment, it is important to acknowledge that cameras attached to police officer’s heads and used in citizen’s private homes can have a similar dehumanizing effect on citizens and officers, and the way their social transactions unfold. Is it not conceivable that on-officer video will be adopted to solve problems that disproportionately impact minority communities, but their deployment may in the long run result in the greatest costs to those communities they’re intended to benefit?
At the heart of the issue of on-officer video technology is the contradictory impact that it can have on actual police accountability on the one hand, and public perceptions of police accountability on the other hand. Legitimacy is eroded when people don’t trust the police and when they believe police don’t treat them fairly and respectfully. Ironically, a technology that is designed to create greater accountability for individual officers may reduce the legitimacy of policing as an institution in the eyes of the American public.