So how ’bout them police cams?


SPD’s pilot body cams.

Body-worn cameras on cops are all the rage among technocrats, which makes sense: if your whole approach to politics is pretending to be apolitical, then hooking a fancy new gadget to a cop is far more palatable than asking why so many people are angry at police or what police are doing that makes such dystopian technology a lesser evil by comparison.

Personally, I like body cameras. I don’t think they solve the problem of police accountability, and I fear their abuse, but for all that, it still seems to me that keeping cops from “kicking the fucking Mexican piss” out of suspects is basically like keeping cashiers from stealing out of the till: cameras make people candid. Body cams have the potential to help reign-in an increasingly militarized police force, and this potential outweighs the existential threat they pose to privacy. (Personally, I think privacy is less important, social justice-wise, than equal access to information; the problem with a panoptical society is not that everyone is observed, but rather that only a powerful elite do the observing.) So unless my fellow citizens launch into an unprecedentedly honest discussion about social power, use of force, accountability, and racism, it seems likely that the watchers of watchmen will soon be lapel-mounted, all-seeing robots. We must sacrifice our civil liberties in order to save them.

A protester at a Seattle #BlackLivesMatter march demands body cams for *all* officers.

A protester at a Seattle #BlackLivesMatter march demands body cams for *all* officers.

But there’s different degrees of Orwellian surveillance, and two Washington state legislators have suggested that maybe we should go diet dystopian. Sen. Pramila Jayapal and Rep. Cindy Ryu, reports PubliCola, have introduced a bill that would 1-only allow body cam footage to be used for issues of cop misconduct, not against suspects at trial, and 2-requires footage to be destroyed within a certain time period unless it’s being used in a complaint. (Rep. Drew Hansen has introduced a separate bill that, uh, doesn’t do any of that.) Jayapal/Ryu’s plan is backed by the ACLU, by the way, and if the importance of listening to the ACLU when we’re talking about cops wearing body cams isn’t obvious to you, then stop reading this and start reading these.

Look: it’s just a fact that we live in a society that in many ways makes 1984 and Brave New World look quaint. Neither Facebook nor camera phones are going away, and police aren’t suddenly going to beat their sidearms into plowshares. There’s no way to push the inexorable march of communications and surveillance technology back into Pandora’s box, but at least we can use smart policy to guide that march to serve our own ends. The whole point of police body cams is to keep an eye on police, not to spy on everyone else. And we can have that—we can have our cake and eat it too, we can have body cams without (more of) a surveillance state—if we write our laws right.


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