A Matter of Trust... Again
Earlier this week, the Obama administration decried the militarization of police, opined about the "simmering distrust between police and minority communities," and asked for authorization of $263 million dollars to fund body cameras for 50,000 officers around the nation. While many have applauded this as a way to both ensure appropriate behavior of officers and to protect them from false allegations, many rank and file officers are... well... rankled.
The objection was well-summarized in a social media post by a man I know and respect. A soon-to-be-retired career officer in a major metropolitan police force, he wrote, "I don't like the implication of the camera--that a cop is a suspect for his or her entire workday, and must be monitored continually."
I hated to say it but all I could do was welcome him to our world. From background checks to purchase a firearm, to cameras on every street corner, to drones being used for domestic surveillance, to mass-collection of our electronic communication, to law enforcement's own secretive use of Federal spying tools, the American public has been repeatedly bludgeoned with the idea that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." This is now being extended to those who have been charged with encouraging our acceptance of this notion.
We get it. This isn't about fear, this is about offense and insult. This is about being treated like you are untrustworthy and somehow a danger to society. This is about "pre-crime." This is about conditioning a populace to accept both the yoke of suspicion due to the actions of others and supervision by "betters."
And this is how many of us have been living for some time now.
Are there potential advantages to the wearing of body cameras? Absolutely. Recordings would be supporting evidence of wrongdoing by police officers, ensuring fair and equal treatment of citizens. It would allow the "bad apples" to be rooted out, protecting the integrity of local departments and the reputation of those public servants who truly do understand the duties - and limits - of their profession. It would also protect officers from false accusations of abuse by citizens seeking simply to profit from such slander or to get away with wrongdoing of their own, with a smokescreen of public outrage over a complete fabrication.
But what of the disadvantages?
Who owns the data and will it be shared with other departments or Federal agencies? Would only police interactions with citizens be recorded or would it be a constant, ever-watchful eye in the same way as our electronic communications are now mass-gathered? Will facial-recognition software be incorporated, turning each officer into the human equivalent of a license plate scanner? How long will any recordings be retained and will they be cross-referenced with citizens' communications to build an electronic dossier on us?
Would an officer be held accountable of their personal watcher was damaged or found to be inoperable? Would an individual officer's refusal to wear the device be grounds for termination? Would the refusal of a department to issue the devices result in "persuasion" through the loss of Federal aid, programs and/or access to data? This is not far-fetched, given that the Departments of Education in Indiana and Oklahoma were threatened with loss of Federal funding for their rejection of the Common Core curriculum. Do we really want this or future administrations telling our local law enforcement agencies how to operate locally?
And on a more fundamental human level, what of morale? What will be the effect on those hired to enforce the law - sometimes at great personal risk - who will work with the knowledge that they are seen as power-abusing sadists who can only be trusted if they are kept under close and constant scrutiny? Will fear of a "snitches get stitches" culture actually alienate officers further from the community they police, with witnesses being unwilling to report crimes on camera? Might officers fear political or professional repercussions for making jokes or candid comments about their supervisors in front of their partners?
Obviously, I don't know how this will pan out. Most likely, we will soon see officers sporting these, regardless of reservations or objections. But it is my hope that those officers will remember this feeling right now and develop more sympathy for those of us who insist that we need not have something to hide in order to value our privacy.