One of the technological developments that will affect society to a huge degree is the creation of cheaper and smaller cameras. It remains to be seen whether this trend will be good or bad for society. One of the positive outcomes is the crowdsourcing of entertainment—essentially, much of youtube is a result of this transformation. One of the negatives is that it makes it much easier to implement a police state, particularly when combined with facial recognition and artificial intelligence.
As such, I’m always interesting in seeing how the government misuses technology. Thus, this article discussing a study of police dashboard camera use in Chicago caught my eye. The killer statistic is that as a result of either broken or misused equipment, 80% of the police department’s dashcam video recordings didn’t have audio. The cause in most cases seems to be police officers sabotaging their own microphones.
Why would police officers do that?
To me, this is a big problem with the justice system. I can only think of two reasons why officers would deliberately want to ensure that evidence is not recorded for later use in court. The first reason is because the evidence might help defendants in court. It might increase the chance that the people the officers arrest will be found not guilty.
For this to be the case, officers must believe that the evidence provided by the dashboard cams will often show that the police officers are arresting people that shouldn’t be arrested. Essentially, it means that police are disabling the cameras because they prevent the police from putting innocent people in prison.
The second possibility is that police are disabling these cameras because they prevent police misconduct. Police officers believe that some of their own actions are illegal, and the only way to continue doing such actions without being held accountable is by destroying the evidence. Essentially, the police are acting as criminals, and, like other criminals, they want to eliminate the evidence for their crimes.
The other side of the story
Of course, if you were a police officer, you might frame this sabotage in others ways. For instance, perhaps you believe that the law has so many loopholes a defendant can exploit that, if there is recorded evidence, then guilty people who have good lawyers will get off on technicalities. Essentially, with accurate recordings, it might be impossible to convict guilty people because of factors unrelated to the crime itself. This premise is the basis of hundreds of “rogue cop” stories, where, in order to deliver justice, the heroic police officer has to work outside the restrictions of the law.
The second option is the exact opposite: that there are so many potential crimes and the rules are so complicated that anyone who is constantly being recorded is likely to be filmed committing a crime. Police officers, knowing the law and justice system better than most, recognize this fact and realize that with proper dash cams, some of their own crimes will be recorded. To avoid this near certainty, they sabotage their own equipment.
What’s really happening?
I think a combination of these two cases is true. I suspect police officers recognize that without cameras, their testimony in court has a huge amount of weight. They can say whatever is needed in court to both get the conviction and portray their own actions in a positive light. Almost regardless of what they say, they’ll be believed by the jury and the judge, certainly more than the defendant. Once the camera enters the scene, the value of their testimony falls. They can no longer frame the narrative in a way that helps their own agenda.
As big an issue is the fact that the camera forces police officers to be perfect. Over the long term, officers themselves will be filmed more than any other people. Their voices will be in every one of hundreds of videos.
But policing is a tough job, with split-second life and death decisions. Occasionally an officer might make a mistake, doing something that they shouldn’t, and if the camera’s recording, that mistake will be captured. And when people are reviewing the tapes, they won’t look at the 100 instances where the officer was perfect, but rather the ten seconds when they messed up. That’s the video that will be played on the news over and over again. If there was an easy way to avoid having that perfectly human mistake cost you your entire career, why wouldn’t you take it?
So, from the police officer’s perspective, the vast majority of the time, the camera has negative value for both their job and their careers. Is it any surprise that they get broken?
What should be done?
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that these cameras give us the ability to see the truth, to ensure that the innocent are set free and the guilty are held accountable. While it might be understandable that police officers don’t like them, that isn’t a good reason to not have them.
So, I’d suggest three things be done to remedy the situation.
First, there should be an inquiry that includes interviews with police officers so we have a better understanding of why this is happening. Are we in a case where loopholes in the law are such that criminals will be able to escape anything if there is video evidence of the arrests? Are officers concerned that they will be prosecuted or lose their jobs for the sorts of mistakes anyone would make? Once we understand the causes better, we should change the system to alleviate the worst of the problems.
Second, in cases where a dashboard camera was available but disabled (or the footage lost) police testimony should be considered inadmissible. This would avoid the problem of police disabling cameras so that they can frame the narrative in their own terms, and would encourage them to care a lot about keeping their cameras working.
Third, if cameras are disabled for any reason other than human error—which, statistically, should be a very infrequent occurrence—police officers should be charged with vandalism and the destruction of evidence. Just like anyone else.
The bottom line
Dashboard cameras are largely a positive technological development. To me, anything that makes legal outcomes based on what actually happened rather than what people say happened is a good thing. Plus, these cameras will reduce police corruption and improve the skills of our police force by ensuring that officers are accountable for their actions. The fact that we’re having these growing pains in Chicago isn’t a sign that the cameras don’t work, but rather that police officers themselves believe that these cameras are effective.