Future Tense

A Surprising Downside of Bodycams

A former police officer explains how a body-worn camera forced her to do everything by the book—even when that might not have been in the community’s best interest.

A police officer wears an Axon body camera.
A police officer wears an Axon body camera during the Immigrants Make America Great March to protest actions being taken by the Trump administration on Feb. 18, 2017, in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

It was a routine traffic stop. A Subaru Forester blew past a stop sign in northwest D.C., and I pulled it over. But the driver, a middle-aged woman with an infant in the back seat, seemed shifty.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. My name is Officer Miller. May I please see your license, registration, and proof of insurance?”

“I don’t have my license on me,” she blurted.

“No problem.” I pulled my notebook and pen out of my back pocket and handed it to her. “I can look your license up in the system. Please write down your name and date of birth.”

The driver didn’t reach for my notebook. Instead, she reached for her purse and said, “I’m sorry. I just lied to you.” She handed me her license—two years expired. I was supposed to arrest her. I looked at the grocery bags on the floor and then the child, wide-eyed, my red and blue lights splashing across his hairless head. Violating protocol, I asked the woman to park the car and call a friend to pick her up. In five minutes, she was gone.

That traffic stop took place at the tail end of 2015. I couldn’t have gotten away with that decision today.

I didn’t know it then, but the era of “nothing to see here” and “keep it moving, folks” was coming to an end. A year earlier, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Amid calls for increased police accountability, a prominent reform that took root was body-worn cameras for officers. Not long after that traffic stop, I was wearing one too.

At first, I loved it—the impartial third party affixed to my chest. I could review video when I forgot something a witness told me, letting me include extra details in my reports at the end of the shift. The footage squashed false complaints at a time when it felt like everybody hated the police. I watched my colleagues speak more respectfully to citizens and fellow officers.

But the new system wasn’t without its downsides. My footage was subject to review by my supervisors, who could punish violations of our general orders, no matter how petty. Body cameras provided a piece of evidence shown to judges, juries, and, of course, defense attorneys, who could now pick apart both my recorded voice and my testimony at trial. And it was a public record the mayor sometimes released to local news outlets when there was a use-of-force incident. Seemingly overnight, keeping my job meant doing everything by the book.

And seemingly overnight, the technology proliferated. Before Ferguson, there were only a couple dozen police departments piloting body-worn cameras. Today, half of the country’s 18,000 police departments have them. The change was sweeping, and it was fast.

Part of this is because the perceived benefits of body-worn cameras are obvious—citizens and officers behave better in the presence of a camera. Yet studies do not present a clear picture of their effectiveness. According to some, a bodycam program is correlated with a reduction in civilian complaints against officers as well as use-of-force incidents. But a study conducted on the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, where I worked, found no meaningful change at all in these statistics.*

Regardless of their broader efficacy, my colleagues and I adapted our behavior to preserve our relationship with members of the community, even as body cameras forced an unfamiliar formality with them. Gone were the days of being able to tell a mom to park her Subaru. I made fewer traffic stops. I spent less time patrolling on foot. If I discovered a homeless person urinating in public, the video forced me to fine him, arrest him, or violate general orders by not recording the interaction. I used to pop into a market on New Hampshire Avenue and holler at Mike, the owner, who gave me the latest news from the block. Technically, I should have pressed “record” the moment he indicated there was criminal activity underfoot, like people blocking the sidewalk in front of his business.

For fans of The Wire, a television show about politics, police, and crime in Baltimore, my dilemma may ring familiar. In most American cities, it’s unlawful to consume alcohol in public—an ordinance that burdens both the police who have to enforce it and people in low-income neighborhoods, where the addicted and unemployed sit on stoops and at street corners, passing Mad Dog 20/20 or Colt 45 back and forth. Thus, an official explained in one episode, drinking from a brown paper bag came to be a gentlemen’s agreement. By concealing the beverage, police weren’t obligated to address it and folks could enjoy their beverages on a hot summer day without interruption. It didn’t make drinking in public lawful; it provided a workaround for police and citizens who agreed it was frivolous.

Body-worn cameras had the reverse impact of the brown paper bag. Whereas the brown bag gave officers permission to look the other way, the body-worn camera was a third party making certain we didn’t. So, bodycams may have made it easier to hold bad cops accountable for their actions, but they also have the effect of holding citizens strictly accountable for theirs.

I did what I could to preserve community policing, but when I was called to people’s homes for family disputes, it was particularly challenging. Often, I found, people call police because they want someone to listen to them. They don’t necessarily want anybody locked up. They’re inviting a third party to a matter that overwhelms them. I found this most common with single mothers dealing with rebellious children. Before body-worn cameras, I was happy to listen fully to their account of events, describe civil and criminal recourses, and take their preferences into account when deciding whether an arrest was prudent. If a mother told me her child had broken something of hers in a heated argument, we could talk candidly about her safety and whether a police intervention was the best strategy to address the problem

Since the adoption of body cameras, the law is the law. If a person described being the victim of a crime while I was interviewing them, I was obligated to take police action. I once interrupted a mother who called 911 on her son, pointed to the camera on my chest, and said, “If you’re about to report a crime, we have a duty to apply for a warrant for his arrest.” Her son was a young man of color without a criminal history. She was unharmed but frustrated. And there was a hole in the drywall that could have been punched in. Whether it became evidence that her son committed a crime was entirely dependent upon what she chose to say next.

She nodded, suppressing the mouthful she had rehearsed before I had even arrived, understanding the discretion I had given her. We stood looking at one another for a moment—the two of us, skirting a system.

Even if the benefits of body-worn cameras are disputed, the technology is likely here to stay. Once they are outfitted with them, police officers generally believe the pros outweigh the cons. Citizens are supportive of them. Though it made community policing more difficult for me, with clever communication, I could work around it—I could build the trust that it, ironically, was intended to foster.

That’s because I’m confident good cops will always find a way to be good cops. And as much as I hope it spells change for the bad apples, that conclusion is far from foregone.

As I wrapped up on the scene with the mother who called 911, I asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”

She said, “No, I guess not.” As I turned to leave, she went out of her way to add, “Thank you.” My department’s motto was: “We are here to help.” When I left the department last year, it struck me how much harder that mission had become.

Correction, May 3, 2019: This piece originally misidentified the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department as the D.C. Metropolitan Department.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.