NY Times on Police Surveillance


The New York Times has an article about the increasing use of wearable video cameras by police departments to record every interaction between officers and the public while they’re on duty. But the article also shows the reluctance of the police officers to accept such surveillance:

William A. Farrar, the police chief in Rialto, Calif., has been investigating whether officers’ use of video cameras can bring measurable benefits to relations between the police and civilians. Officers in Rialto, which has a population of about 100,000, already carry Taser weapons equipped with small video cameras that activate when the weapon is armed, and the officers have long worn digital audio recorders.

But when Mr. Farrar told his uniformed patrol officers of his plans to introduce the new, wearable video cameras, “it wasn’t the easiest sell,” he said, especially to some older officers who initially were “questioning why ‘big brother’ should see everything they do.”

He said he reminded them that civilians could use their cellphones to record interactions, “so instead of relying on somebody else’s partial picture of what occurred, why not have your own?” he asked. “In this way, you have the real one.”

Oh, the irony of police officers complaining about “big brother.” As I’ve pointed out many times, every good police officer should want to have these interactions recorded because they protect them as much as they protect the public. It can protect them from false allegations of misconduct. It’s the ones who routinely engage in such misconduct who are at risk from this kind of surveillance — and those are exactly the ones who need to be recorded at all times.

Comments

  1. doublereed says

    To be fair, I don’t think anyone likes constant surveillance, police or civilian. The argument “Well it’s to protect you. If you’re not doing anything wrong then what are you afraid of?” is the exact same argument used for surveillance of civilians.

  2. eurosid says

    Cops are always cooking up excuses to search people, their vehicles, their cell phones, whatever else might be handy. The refrain is always the same: “If you aren’t doing something wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.”

    Funny how they don’t see it that way when the shoe’s on the other foot.

  3. says

    some older officers who initially were “questioning why ‘big brother’ should see everything they do.”

    Up next, Obama complaining about North Korea’s lack of government transparency.

  4. eurosid says

    @doublereed

    This isn’t constant surveillance, it’s surveillance while they are on the job. Loads of people have to work under the same conditions. Why should cops get a pass?

  5. blf says

    As I’ve pointed out many times, every good police officer should want to have these interactions recorded because they protect them as much as they protect the public.

    Indeed. The concept has been — and as far as I know, still is being — tried in the UK, Police officers in Sutton trial body cameras:

    The small device records the sights and sounds of what is going on in front of them and the trial is of such good effect, the borough is looking to fund more cameras.

    Officers who have used the cameras over the last two months report many offenders have chosen to leave a scene quietly, after being shocked and embarrassed to see their bad behaviour played back to them.

    In contrast, the minority of offenders who continue their abusive and aggressive behaviour despite being recorded, are providing police with the image based evidence needed to secure a prosecution.

    Sutton Town Centre Inspector Richard Hall said it was proving to be a ‘win win’ situation.

    He said: “In the vast majority of cases, the cameras are resulting in more incidents being dealt with on the street and less officer time spent at the police station dealing with the paperwork involved in processing prisoners.”

    Insp Hall added: “… there [has not] been any complaint against police upheld whilst officers have been equipped with the cameras.”

  6. says

    @doublereed #1 –

    The argument “Well it’s to protect you. If you’re not doing anything wrong then what are you afraid of?” is the exact same argument used for surveillance of civilians.

    And police have been at the forefront of demanding that civilians be kept under surveillance 24/7 “for the good of the community.”

    It seems that turnaround is not fair after all.

  7. says

    The most interesting (but least surprising) part of the article:

    …Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

    Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 61. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras during that shift, the study found…

  8. doublereed says

    But you’re not arguing that surveillance is bad for civilians AND police officers. He said that surveillance is GOOD for police officers (and I assume bad for civilians). That’s obvously hypocritical.

    And the argument that they are only under surveillance during their job: Fair enough. That’s a good argument, but that doesn’t mean that they have to like it or want it. From a cop’s perspective, it makes perfect sense to be apprehensive or hostile to surveillance regardless of whether or not they engage in misconduct themselves.

  9. Matrim says

    @8> I don’t recall Ed ever saying “surveillance is bad” at any point. He has argued about the right to privacy, which is an entirely different thing. On duty police officers have no right to privacy while acting under color of authority. The average citizen has a right to privacy as outlined by the Constitution, as does the police officer while operating as a private citizen. These are the people we entrust with the power and authority to uphold the law, they are accountable to us as a society for there actions. I fail to see any way in which Ed’s position is hypocritical.

  10. doublereed says

    @9 The hypocrisy is in the specific argument for surveillance of police officers: “It protects you! You should want to be under surveillance!” You’re making different arguments, which are not hypocritical. Notice that your arguments do not pretend to give a damn about false allegations of misconduct.

    But the main problem I have is that OF COURSE police officers don’t want to be under surveillance. NO ONE DOES. This is not surprising. This is not suspicious. This is how all people act!

  11. freemage says

    doublereed: My employer has the right to observe my conduct at work. That’s what’s being asked of these officers. And the benefits of this increased supervision have been perpetually confirmed by every department that’s tried it.

    What the cops and other law-and-order types argue for, on the other hand, is the right for the authorities to observe private citizens in private settings. This usually results in increased arrests, but seems to have a negligible effect on crime, because (as has often been noted), the law is so overloaded that virtually everyone breaks the law daily–meaning that with increased surveillance, the cops have the discretion to decide who goes to jail.

  12. matty1 says

    Sureveillance during the job is the crucial point. When you are working your employer has a legitimate interest in what you are doing (and in the case of police the employer is the voters and taxpayers) so it is reasonable they can observe you and record that observation.

    There is no such legitimate interest in what people do in their personal lives nor does one employer have an interest in someone else’s employees, e.g it would not be right for the police to spy on a journalist without a warrant on the grounds that they are working.

  13. says

    doublereed said:

    But you’re not arguing that surveillance is bad for civilians AND police officers. He said that surveillance is GOOD for police officers (and I assume bad for civilians). That’s obvously hypocritical.

    Hardly. I don’t think anyone is saying that surveillance, in general, is bad. It’s bad to surveil civilians without their consent in their daily lives because civilians have a right to privacy. It’s not bad to survail police officers in the line of duty because surveillance is a typical practice in many lines of work to “keep workers honest,” but is extra-valuable in the case of police officers because it protects them as well, from false accusations.

  14. wscott says

    My employer has the right to observe my conduct at work.

    I don’t know where you work, but I’d be willing to guess that your employer does not in fact have a camera & mike pointed at your desk all day long recording every single thing you do & say. And I bet if they suddenly started doing so, you would feel…kindof uncomfortable at a minimum. (Are you writing this at work?) That’s just human nature.
    .
    Personally I agree that police should have all their public interactions recorded. But expecting them to like it (at least initially) is not realistic.

  15. doublereed says

    I am not arguing against the surveillance of police officers. I think it’s a good idea.

    But I don’t think we should be pretending to do it because of its benefits to police officers.

  16. says

    But I don’t think we should be pretending to do it because of its benefits to police officers.

    We’re not. We’re laughing (and cringing) at them for bitching about “Big Brother” as a reason not to do it.

    Goodness, do you live in a society where everyone only approves of things that benefit them personally, and disapproves vocally of everything else?

  17. doublereed says

    “As I’ve pointed out many times, every good police officer should want to have these interactions recorded because they protect them as much as they protect the public.”

    This is precisely the argument for surveillance of citizens. If this is sarcasm, then this works. If not, then it is hypocritical. He is making a claim about what the officers should want.

    Seriously, try reading the second paragraph as sarcasm. It works well, but I have no idea whether it’s supposed to.

  18. says

    It’s not sarcasm, FFS. It’s possible for surveillance to be good for police officers but not for citizens, as I just got done explaining.

    Surveilling police officers would benefit them (assuming they are doing their jobs right, and officers who are not doing their jobs right deserve no benefit), but the primary purpose of doing so would be to benefit civilians who stand in a position to be abused by police, quite easily and undetectably without surveillance. There is no such equivalent risk citizens themselves, or for that matter police officers when they are not on-duty.

    Ergo, not fucking hypocritical. And also not sarcastic.

  19. jamessweet says

    FWIW, I understand why cops might resist having all their actions recorded. If my employer was talking about putting a camera in every office, I’d be kinda pissed… that kind of intrusiveness, it’s just doesn’t feel right.

    I’ve felt that this can be addresses for police officers by setting it up by policy so that the tapes can only be viewed by subpoena or as part of a criminal or civil investigation or something. i.e., assure them that it’s not going to be used to like force them to be more productive or to go on fishing expeditions for cops goofing off or whatever. The cameras are for when there is a dispute over what occurred, not for routine monitoring.

  20. sinned34 says

    A little while ago, I had an interesting chat with a woman who had been the wife of an RCMP officer back in the 90s.
    Apparently, the RCMP vehicles all had dash-mounted video cameras tied to VCRs in the trunk of the vehicle. The VCRs were locked with a unique key that only the shift supervisor back at the station had access to. At the end of each shift, the supervisor would remove and replace the tape to prepare the vehicle for the next officer’s shift with the car or truck.
    However, somebody had made copies of the master key to access the VCRs, and passed those copies out to every officer. Each cop kept a blank videocassette in their work briefcase so that, if they needed to, they could go in and replace the tape if it had anything on it that might be able to be used as evidence against the officer.
    Videotape? Yeah, looks like the VCR must have screwed up, because there’s nothing on this tape.

  21. doublereed says

    Gretchen, I already said that I think surveillance of police officers is a good idea…

    That doesn’t mean you use the exact same argument that Big Brother uses to surveillance citizens than you use to surveillance police officers. Obviously there has to be a DIFFERENT argument (like the one you just presented), because you’re coming to opposite conclusions!

    But that’s not at all what the second paragraph says. You could literally replace “police officer” with “citizen” in his second paragraph, and it’s a Big Brother argument. Word for word. Hence why I think it might be sarcasm.

    Just because an argument comes to the correct conclusion doesn’t mean the argument makes any sense.

  22. cry4turtles says

    I would think this has the potential to significantly decrease paperwork time. Cops could simply file the video. If anyone wants answers, just watch the clip. It would give cops more time to walk the beat. Is my “Law & Order” showing?

  23. says

    doublereed said:

    But that’s not at all what the second paragraph says. You could literally replace “police officer” with “citizen” in his second paragraph, and it’s a Big Brother argument. Word for word.

    Do you understand that “big brother” is not strictly a type of argument, but also a specific context in which that argument takes place? Of government surveilling civilians, and not the other way around? Which is the entire reason why Ed calls it ironic for the police to complain about it?

  24. doublereed says

    Gretchen, do you understand what I mean and are just being pedantic?

    I get the irony. I was referring to the rest of the paragraph, just replace “every good police officer” => “every good citizen.” Here:

    “As I’ve pointed out many times, every good [citizen] should want to have [all public] interactions recorded because they protect them as much as they protect the public. It can protect them from false allegations of misconduct. It’s the ones who routinely engage in such misconduct who are at risk from this kind of surveillance — and those are exactly the ones who need to be recorded at all times.”

  25. lofgren says

    I get what doublereed is saying, and I think he has a valid point.

    “Every good cop should want cameras so they can be protected from false allegations” assumes that the risk of false allegations is really an frequent concern for “good cops,” to the extent that it overrides any other rational objections to constant (on duty) surveillance. Yet we do see cops who at least appear to be good who do object. So are these cops actually “not good,” or are they not rational, or is it possible that they have a better idea of what would benefit them than Ed does?

    We should advocate recording the police because of the benefits that it affords us, the civilians. Let the cops tell us what they think, don’t tell them what they should think. We can weigh their objections and determine if they are legitimate enough to bypass the obvious benefit to the public. But I certainly do not blame even the good cops for being resistant to this idea. Part of what makes good cops good is that they can rely on their own judgement. If the force was made up of nothing but good cops, I wouldn’t support this policy.

  26. says

    @ Lofgren ” Let the cops tell us what they think, don’t tell them what they should think”

    What kind of job do you have that doesn’t involve having to do things that you don’t like? It doesn’t matter whether or not you like it. It’s part of the job. I totally get the idea that being recorded constantly is objectionable. But a cop’s interaction with the public is entirely different than an employees interaction with their boss.

    @Doublereed

    just think for a moment…. What can a police officer ‘legally’ do to you that you can’t do to them? What power can the officer exert over you that you cannot exert over them?

  27. doublereed says

    Let me try this again.

    Police should be under surveillance. This is because it will prevent them from abusing their post and position as a police officer. This would drastically lower police brutality or at least would provide evidence of police brutality against bad cops.

    I fully expect police officers to be resistant to surveillance, because nobody likes being under surveillance. I expect them to suck it up and deal with it because it should be a part of their job. It’s their job to serve society.

    I do not think police officers should be under surveillance because ‘good cops have nothing to worry about if they behave.’ That is a bad argument. That is the exact same argument Big Brother uses. I do not like Big Brother. That is the argument that Ed says verbatim (and I know that he doesn’t like Big Brother either). Therefore, I criticize.

  28. wilsim says

    Nobody, including police officers or the general public, has any reasonable expectation of privacy while in public space. Sorry, this is the new paradigm and everyone had best get used to it.

  29. wilsim says

    @doublereed “I do not think police officers should be under surveillance because ‘good cops have nothing to worry about if they behave.’ That is a bad argument. That is the exact same argument Big Brother uses. I do not like Big Brother. That is the argument that Ed says verbatim (and I know that he doesn’t like Big Brother either). Therefore, I criticize.”

    Nobody is suggesting that is the overriding reason why police officers should have their interactions with the public recorded. Another reason given specifically is that the officers with cameras have to do less paperwork, and there are far fewer claims of abuse by police, they can be recorded anyway so their video would be the official one.

    I think Ed’s second paragraph would be clearer if he had mentioned “in public” in the closing sentence.

  30. says

    doublereed said:

    I do not think police officers should be under surveillance because ‘good cops have nothing to worry about if they behave.’ That is a bad argument. That is the exact same argument Big Brother uses. I do not like Big Brother. That is the argument that Ed says verbatim (and I know that he doesn’t like Big Brother either). Therefore, I criticize.

    When Big Brother uses this argument, it’s bad not because it’s a bad argument but because it’s not true. People who are good and obey the law do need to fear surveillance, because it violates their right to privacy regardless. Police officers who are good and obey the law do not have any equal right to privacy while on duty, so this does not apply to them.

    So explain why it’s a bad argument when not coming from Big Brother. If you have no explanation other than “This is an argument Big Brother uses,” then it’s a textbook ad hominem.

  31. doublereed says

    Why don’t police officers have a right to privacy? I would argue that they do. All citizens have a right to privacy.

    I don’t think this is a good argument at all. I think it’s blatantly fallacious.

  32. lofgren says

    I think it’s a bad argument not because the cops have “a right to privacy,” but because I believe that being recorded will also have potential negative effects even for “good” cops doing a “good” job. I do not believe that those negative effects are a significant enough risk that we should not record the police doing their jobs.

    Potential negatives would be that the concern over Monday morning quarterbacking will affect anybody’s decision making, not always for the better. Witnesses might be more reticent to cooperate with the police if they know that they are being recorded. The tapes can become a tool for witch hunts and scapegoating.

    The idea that police who are “good” have nothing to fear strikes me as both fallacious and presumptuous.

    What kind of job do you have that doesn’t involve having to do things that you don’t like? It doesn’t matter whether or not you like it. It’s part of the job. I totally get the idea that being recorded constantly is objectionable. But a cop’s interaction with the public is entirely different than an employees interaction with their boss.

    Of course it’s part of the job. But I would also criticize a manager who made this argument, and I would criticize a customer (or whoever you think is an appropriate proxy for the public in your analogy) who made it as well. We should not become so numb to constant recording that we forget that it has a very real effect on behavior.

  33. lofgren says

    So explain why it’s a bad argument when not coming from Big Brother.

    I would argue that if somebody is recording your every move for later review, that person is Big Brother. That’s pretty much the definition of Big Brother.

    Further I would point out who is going to get first crack at these tapes and who gets to decide what we see from them. Those people were Big Brother before they start recording the police. They don’t stop being Big Brother when their reach increases.

  34. says

    doublereed said:

    Why don’t police officers have a right to privacy? I would argue that they do.

    Then do so. Argue it.

    And of course bear in mind that the kind of scrutiny being suggested is not installing cameras in the police station bathrooms– it’s the same kind of surveillance which follows convenience store clerks, bank tellers, shop assistants, and plenty of other people in their current profession. Is their right to privacy being violated?

    No, of course not. Surveillance of people on the job might in some cases be a bad idea, and it might even have deleterious effects of the kind lofgren mentions, but not because it violates their right to privacy.

    lofgren said:

    I would argue that if somebody is recording your every move for later review, that person is Big Brother.

    Good lord, I don’t imagine that anybody’s going to be watching these police officers’ every move. The purpose of the cameras is simply an extension of the purpose they serve in state patrol trooper’s cars– to catch anything important and controversial that happens so that it can be used as evidence later if necessary.

    Further I would point out who is going to get first crack at these tapes and who gets to decide what we see from them.

    Well no kidding– that’s why surveillance tapes which currently exist are so often “misplaced” or “accidentally destroyed.” If you know of a solution to that….

  35. Peter B says

    jamessweet #22
    >The cameras are for when there is a dispute over what occurred, not for routine monitoring.

    An added benefit to officers is reviewing the recording for written reports. Recording is encrypted. Decryption by the officer is allowed. Anyone else had better need a court order. An encounter with a mentally impaired person or someone high on ‘most anything needs to be recorded.

    The recording can not be disabled. Especially when meeting with superior officers. But also during bathroom breaks.

    Modern encryption can guarantee that a specific device recorded any specific message. That proof can be demonstrated to adverse council without showing bathroom breaks.

  36. doublereed says

    Gretchen, I cannot look up a police officer’s medical history, or (like you say) install cameras in their bathrooms as long as they are on duty. They still have a right to privacy.

    The person who is a police officer still has just as much as a right to privacy as he normally did. The difference only comes when he’s taking on the specific role of a police officer. The specific violations to his privacy is specific to his role and nothing else. But he still has his privacy rights. Basically, I wouldn’t fuss around with the right to privacy, I would dodge it entirely.

    But I’m a little confused at this point, because I don’t think this is relevant. In order to show that the argument is not equivalent to the Big Brother argument, don’t you just have to show that good policemen have nothing to fear from surveillance?

  37. lofgren says

    Good lord, I don’t imagine that anybody’s going to be watching these police officers’ every move.

    Now you’re just arguing semantics, and for no good reason as far as I can tell. Whatever percentage of movement is sufficient to qualify a superior authority’s surveillance as “big brother,” that percentage is far exceeded by these measures.

    Well no kidding– that’s why surveillance tapes which currently exist are so often “misplaced” or “accidentally destroyed.”

    I’m confused. Are you conceding that big brother is a fair description of the authorities who will be handling the recording of police, or are you still arguing that it is unreasonable?

    At the bare minimum, cops have the same reason to fear being recorded as anybody else who isn’t doing anything wrong: the video might be misinterpreted, misrepresented, mined, or misused in a way that does them harm. Nobody can guarantee that won’t happen.

  38. aluchko says

    jamessweet,

    Agreed, I think the cops would feel a lot more comfortable if they were assured that the only way a 3rd party could see the video is through a subpoena, or at least only sections directly related to the incident were available. I think their main worry would be about a nosy supervisor or co-worker intruding on personal interactions they have while on the job.

  39. Pyra says

    I do work under a SHIT TON of cameras. They are ostensibly sold to monitor customers, but more frequently are used against those of us who work there. They are located all over the store. And all we do is handle a little product and cash. When these officers are handling our lives, they can be monitored, too.

Leave a Reply