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Why Police Body Cameras Can't Fix Everything


Requiring body cameras on our nation's men and women in blue seems like a no-brainer. But what that's oversimplifying things, and worse still, what if they might actually make things worse?

Police body camera. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Literary legends the Brothers Grimm left the world with such fairytale classics as “Cinderella,” and “Snow White.”

One of their lesser known (or at least, less popularized) works was “The Two Brothers,” out of which came what is today an extremely popularized concept: The “silver bullet.”

As the story goes, “one of the heroes uses three silver buttons as bullets in his gun to bring a witch out of a tree.”

Today the saying has little to do with witches (or with werewolves, as it is also commonly associated), and everything to do with a be-all-end-all solution to some kind of a problem.

Police body camera. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Police body camera. Photo Credit: Shutterstock 

And today, where our police forces are doubted far more often than they are trusted, “video” via body cameras is that “silver bullet.”

It seems like such common sense … at least it once did to me. Just add body cameras, and we’re golden.

“When numerous cameras are documenting interactions, the truth prevails,” said Texas State Sen. Craig Estes, (R-Wichita Falls) in a recent debate over body camera legislation in his state.

But is it really that simple? And can the truth always prevail?

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with police officers from around the country—and while each offered valuable insight, I was especially struck by the commentary offered by Minnesota Officer M.P.

I didn’t expect to hear what I heard.

[sharequote align="center"]Cameras record only what it is pointed at, and nothing else.[/sharequote]

“People need to understand that there is no silver bullet solution to the difficulties and challenges faced in effective policing,” he said, “Take body cameras, for instance. To my knowledge I’ve never said anything that I couldn’t back up. So in that sense, I don’t care if I’m asked to wear a camera. My only reservation is that it’s not a cure-all.”

I shared this extended portion of my interview with Officer M.P. on my blog—but in light of the McKinney, Texas pool party incident, it’s more important than ever that people understand just exactly what purpose video can serve … and where it can’t.

And today, if McKinney teaches us anything, it’s that the video isn’t necessarily the whole story. Even had it comes from a camera worn by the cop himself, its limitations are large. And since we live in a 30-second news cycle world where the public makes near-instant judgments based largely on what they “see” versus understanding the entire story—the limitations are rather epic.

For instance, the video didn’t tell the public that the innocent “children’s’ pool party” was in reality a raucous unsanctioned “Dime Piece” party meant to promote and sell tickets to yet another gem, a “Make It Clap” event. As TheBlaze contributor Matt Walsh recently explained, “for those mercifully uninitiated, the former is a slang term for attractive women. ‘Dime’ as in a 10-out-of-10 on the sexy scale, and ‘piece’ is short for 'piece of ass.’ The latter, ‘make it clap,’ refers to a girl twerking on the dance floor and making her butt cheeks clap together."

The video didn’t tell the public that the cop had dealt with two grisly calls prior to the Dime Piece Party shenanigans, and by his own admission was mentally and emotionally spent—and lost his cool.

And today, because of the jury, judge and executioner that is this video—this cop’s alleged overstep (in which absolutely NO one was hurt, or racially targeted for that matter) has ended his career, and has even spawned death threats towards the officer and his family. All before anything could really be examined.

I’m not here to discuss the merits of the now-resigned McKinney officer’s actions. My point, dear readers, is to help us all understand that video isn’t always a silver bullet.

And unless we’re talking about something that is so clearly and undeniably wrong like that seen in the case of the cop who shot the fleeing South Carolina man in the back … we have to understand that video almost always has incredible limitations.

Let’s break this down.

The Camera Can’t Sense, and Has No Deeper Perspective

“Cameras only hear what they can hear, and only see what they’re pointed at. What’s right in front of the lens if I have my gun drawn? My hands—so the camera can’t see the full picture of what’s going on. They don’t record senses; what’s in the peripheral.” Officer M.P.

Think about that for a moment. The camera is not living and breathing; it has no soul; no perspective; no ability to process thoughts. It records only what it is pointed at, and nothing else. Just simply consider the “what ifs” that stem from what the camera couldn’t possibly see.

The Camera’s Eyes Can Be Better Than Ours

“[The night vision component] can see FAR better than my own eyes. For example, there’s a range of 10-12 feet of green video, but my own personal vision is just three feet out in the pitch black. While the video might make it perfectly clear what’s in front of me, my eyes can’t always see the same things and thus my reaction might not be based on the same thing the camera is seeing . . . so—when I’m hauled in front of a court of law for some action that I took, the public sees the video and makes an instant judgment about what I “should” have seen.” —Officer M.P.

This was an “aha” moment for me. Even if in a court of law the experts deem that the cop couldn’t have possibly seen what the camera did (thus leading to the action), the video is there nonetheless. And since the court of public opinion is what often matters above all— the aforementioned determination wouldn’t matter.

The Pandora’s Box of Privacy

“…Who gets access to these videos? What about privacy? What if a would-be thief puts in a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and gets every video from Officer M.P., including every house I’ve been in—and uses it to case houses he’d like to rob? What then?” —Officer M.P.

Putting a camera on every cop means infinitely multiplying the amount of available footage of every citizen with which a cop has an interaction—regardless of whether or not you’re doing anything wrong. Consider also, as Officer M.P. further explained, this means the less than stellar moments of your life could be forever visually enshrined on public record. Maybe your behavior is something you won’t even remember in the morning (or would want to). But the camera does. And that’s permanent.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that body cameras can’t work. The reality though, is that widespread implementation of them means a much deeper conversation about when and how they are used, and what is done with the resulting footage.

More importantly, in order for them to serve their true purpose, they’d have to exist within a public willing to consider all aspects of a situation before jumping to permanent conclusions.

And do we really live in that world today?

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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