This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Wednesday, Nov. 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of law enforcement technology. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
More than two years after Ferguson became a hashtag, spawned a movement, and drew national attention to problems about police accountability, the most tangible reform has been the spread of police body cameras. Their use seemed like a clear solution to problems of trust and oversight, but the reality hasn’t been that simple. Body cameras have introduced new problems of their own. How can we do better when the next new police technology arrives? Here are five things to keep in mind.
1. Don’t rush to embrace the next surveillance technology if we don’t have a clear idea of how police will actually use it. Any technology that enables the mass collection, storage, and reuse of information can easily become a tool of police surveillance, even if it begins as one of police transparency.
Though some police departments had already adopted body cameras, 2014 was a breakthrough year for the technology. When a grand jury declined to charge the Ferguson, Missouri, officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, his family called for “every police officer working the streets in this country” to wear a body camera. Faced with mounting calls to respond quickly to concerns about excessive force and racial bias, police departments saw in body cameras an obvious, visible response. The hope was that a camera on every officer would avoid disagreement about what had happened in violent encounters and deter misconduct.
That promise has been only partially fulfilled. Although body cameras will become standard police equipment everywhere, their adoption has become complicated. Not everyone wants to be recorded. Some police officers don’t want to wear them. Others can fail to turn them on, or have their cameras fall off and fail to record. Whether the public can see the video, depends on what state law says, how police interpret that law, and what their own guidelines say, if they say anything. The resulting video itself can be intentionally altered or deleted.
2. Don’t adopt the technology first, and work out the regulatory and policy details later. A technology by itself doesn’t provide police accountability—the policies behind it do. State and local governments will squabble over the details and, worse yet, may not even be able to agree upon any regulations at all even as the technology is rolled out.
Body cameras, once adopted, raised numerous complicated questions. Should the police have the discretion to turn them on or off, and if so, in what circumstances? Could individuals ask the police to turn off their cameras, and should officers comply? Who should be given legal access to body camera video and how? How long should police departments store the data? Could as yet unrealized technologies like facial recognition be incorporated into body cameras? Without regulations or guidelines, body cameras are becoming all-purpose surveillance tools.
3. Don’t forget that a surveillance tool used by the police will meet resistance from the police, too. Police are under greater scrutiny than ever, and the powers we grant law enforcement may justify more oversight than we give other officials, but expect that they will respond much like any other employee facing workplace surveillance. Without acceptance from rank-and-file officers (and their unions), new surveillance technologies will face resistance, criticism, sabotage, and shirking.
For example, the Boston Police Department asked for 100 officers to volunteer for its six-month body camera pilot project. No one came forward. Instead the police union sought an injunction to halt the project, which a judge denied. The pilot project will proceed with officers chosen at random by the department to test out the cameras.
4. Don’t let one vendor dominate the market for the new technology. When one company controls the market for a technology sold to police departments, its choices guide and limit police choices. One company’s influence will discourage others from providing alternatives to police departments. And if that company already has established relationships with police departments, it may encourage sole-source contracts that can strain city budgets and raise ethical questions.
The rise of body cameras has been good to Taser. With its Axon unit, Taser controls roughly three-quarters of the police body camera market. The company claims to have relationships with 17,000 of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, and to have won 32 of the 39 body camera contracts in major city departments. Taser reportedly has coached police departments to avoid competitive bidding. The real profitability for Taser, moreover, lies not in its cameras but in the cloud. Its Evidence.com service, providing cloud video storage and support software, is far more profitable than the cameras themselves. Body cameras are not yearly procurements, but cloud subscriptions are. Like Apple, Taser seeks customer reliance on its ecosystem.
5. Don’t rely too heavily on the president to provide guidance on how best to demand accountability and transparency from local departments. While the president does not control local police departments, he (or, someday, she) can draw national attention to problems in policing. But administrations change, and those changes can usher in radically different attitudes on policing. Laws that strike the balance between civil liberties and law enforcement needs can come from every level of government. And nonprofit organizations that assemble data and bring legal challenges to the use of the technology when warranted have become an essential part of striking that balance.
After the Ferguson protests, President Obama signed an executive order that created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which in turn produced a lengthy report. That report referred to the potential of technology to improve police accountability, including the use of body cameras. What signals Donald Trump will send about policing once he becomes president aren’t entirely clear. But the long path of police reform and oversight need not begin and end with him.