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The Dystopian Danger of Police Body Cameras

Police-worn body cameras have proven valuable in holding police accountable, but are we ready for this type of surveillance technology in other sectors of our society, like our schools?

Cross-posted on MSNBC.com

Police-worn body cameras are the newest darling of crim­inal justice reform. They are touted as a way to collect evid­ence for crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions, over­see and expose abus­ive police prac­tices, and exon­er­ate officers from fabric­ated charges. While the nation contin­ues to debate how effect­ive these body cameras are for police depart­ments, less atten­tion has been paid to the appear­ance of body cameras in other public sectors, most recently in our schools.

Since Michael Brown was shot by a member of the Ferguson, Missouri, police depart­ment last summer, at least 16 cities have intro­duced body camera programs. In the past month alone, at least seven cities have begun study­ing, initi­ated, or expan­ded body camera programs. Pres­id­ent Obama has asked Congress to alloc­ate $75 million for tech­no­logy and train­ing in body-worn cameras, and the Depart­ment of Justice recently provided the first $20 million in grants.

As these programs began to prolif­er­ate, schools took notice. In Hous­ton, Texas, 25 school officers have star­ted wear­ing body cameras in a pilot program, and the school district plans to expand the program to all 210 members of the force.

An Iowa school district has even taken this initi­at­ive one step further, buying cameras for prin­cipals and assist­ant prin­cipals to wear while inter­act­ing with students and parents. While the admin­is­trator over­see­ing the program has said the cameras are not inten­ded to monitor every activ­ity, he expressed the hope that any complaint could be invest­ig­ated through body camera foot­age, suggest­ing that prin­cipals would need to record early and often.

The spread of body cameras into our schools may come as surprise to some, but it should­n’t. It is not unusual for surveil­lance tech­no­lo­gies to leap from one world to another, or to be deployed for one purpose and gradu­ally used for many more. Several examples tell the story.

Local police depart­ments have been making liberal use of a contro­ver­sial new surveil­lance tool origin­ally meant for terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions. Called Stin­grays, these devices can ferret out the loca­tion of a target’s cell phone in real time, often suck­ing up bystand­ers’ phone and loca­tion inform­a­tion in the bargain. Police and the FBI frequently do not request a warrant to use a Stin­gray, and when they do, the applic­a­tions are often so vague and mislead­ing that judges may not know what they are approv­ing. Most notably, while the money to pay for Stin­grays frequently comes from federal anti-terror­ism funds, they are routinely used for run-of-the-mill crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions.

On the federal level, fusion centers are a prime example of mission creep. Origin­ally meant to remedy the short­com­ings in inform­a­tion-shar­ing iden­ti­fied after 9/11, fusion centers were supposed to focus narrowly on prevent­ing future terror­ist attacks. Faced (thank­fully) with a short­age of terror­ist threats, however, their goals were expan­ded to include “all hazards” and “all crimes,” includ­ing combat­ing thefts from baker­ies. Indeed, a scath­ing 2012 Senate report found that the centers produced reports that were not only “shoddy, rarely timely, [and] some­times endan­ger­ing citizens’ civil liber­ties,” but also “more often than not unre­lated to terror­ism.” Even the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity inad­vert­ently rein­forces fusion centers’ mission creep: the three “success stor­ies” for 2014 touted on DHS’s web page, while combat­ing assuredly import­ant crimes, have noth­ing to do with terror­ism.

This history suggests that for body cameras — and any other surveil­lance tech­no­logy — the right ques­tion to ask is not, “are we comfort­able with this partic­u­lar tech­no­logy, used for the partic­u­lar govern­mental purpose currently asser­ted, with the partic­u­lar controls currently in place?” Rather, the more accur­ate and far-reach­ing ques­tion is, “what do we think of the other uses that might be spawned once this tech­no­logy is intro­duced?”

For body cameras, it is already evid­ent that they will be intro­duced in many more contexts than simply law enforce­ment. If they are being placed on prin­cipals, they will even­tu­ally be placed on teach­ers. If they are placed on teach­ers, they will even­tu­ally be placed on child care providers, and then on youth minis­ters, and so on and so on.

The normal­iz­a­tion of one kind of surveil­lance tech­no­logy will also help hasten the normal­iz­a­tion of other types. Indeed, the plans in both Iowa and Hous­ton were justi­fied in part on the fact that the school hall­ways are already lined with surveil­lance cameras — so why not add body cameras to the mix? 

Body cameras may turn out to do exactly what their proponents are hoping: foster a more account­able police while improv­ing beha­vior on both sides of the badge. But we cannot forget that when we approve a tool of surveil­lance for one purpose, we are simul­tan­eously approv­ing it for many other purposes as well, and we would do well to make that a part of the discus­sion.

(Photo: Flickr/Body­Worn)