June 19, 2019

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How Effective Are Body Cameras?

Photo Credit: Utility, Inc., Creative Commons 2.0

In late April, New York City gave 1,200 police officers body cameras as a part of a new program that was mandated by a Federal District Court. Many hope that the cameras will bring accountability and transparency to police officers who have failed to abide by stop-and-frisk policies and who have used excessive force. The cameras will surveil the daily interactions between police officers and civilians on the street.

Prior to the roll out, a federal judge denied a motion to delay the implementation of the body cam program. Defending the motion to delay, Joo-Hyun Kang, director for Communities United for Police Reform, said the program was insufficient because “structurally, it provides mechanisms to protect abusive police officers and not the public.”

Police reform groups have claimed that the body cam program is too lenient in terms of the types of interactions that get recorded. Those same critics have expressed concerns regarding the ability of police officers to watch the recordings before writing a report or submitting a statement. Others wonder whether the answer to discriminatory police practices should be giving more resources to law-enforcement agencies.


The court order that initiated the program came out of a lawsuit, Floyd v. City of New York, that challenged the unconstitutional practices of police officers. Body cams were already being used by NYPD, but the federal court found it necessary to increase the number of camera units. The goal is to have 23,000 units within two years.

Advocates hope the use of excessive force and the number of complaints will diminish as body cameras are introduced.

Will Body Cams Work?

While some studies show that body cameras can be effective in maintaining civility and accountability amongst police officers, there are a number of reasons to doubt that this technology could effectively reduce violent incidents and discriminatory practices in the long term. Naomi Murakawa, a political scientist at Princeton University, suggests in her book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, that these kinds of reforms often end up becoming instruments for further, more effective, brutalization of civilians.

She alludes to the anger surrounding the use of water hoses and police dogs for the suppression of civil rights activists in the sixties. To solve this problem, politicians replaced hoses and dogs with the same militarized equipment that attracted so much criticism during the riots in Ferguson.

Shakeer Rahman, of Al Jazeera America, pointed out in a 2015 article that the same could be true for body cams. With the rise of facial recognition technology, body cameras could eventually turn into effective instruments of control. This is already happening. Police officers in the UK, Dubai and Canada already use this technology to help find missing persons and suspects.

This type of technology could throw a wrench in the works of the Fourth Amendment, which limits a police officer’s ability to stop someone for no reason. If a police officer can tell that someone missed a court date just by catching sight of the person, what’s to stop that officer from intervening? Would this constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Bottom Line

The point is this: even if body cams have positive effects in the short term, it isn’t sound policy to solve a police-related issue by giving the police more resources. This is because, instead of limiting discriminatory police practices, this type of strategy tends to increase the police’s ability to surveil and brutalize minority populations.

In an interview with The Marshall Project, Murakawa offered another point worth considering: “What’s so troubling about this focus on body cams is this idea that somehow we need more evidence of what police are doing. When really, the data we see in terms of racial disparities in arrests, summonses, and who’s incarcerated is the evidence of racism.”

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including AccidentAttorneys.org, PersonalInjury.com, AmericanLegalNews.com and others.