The laws and regulations associated with policing are typically a challenging and emotionally charged subject. The law enforcement system itself is a subject to scrutiny and multiple uncomfortable questions, as the processes and institutions involved often reveal the uglier sides of the modern society. Despite everyone theoretically being equal in front of the law, statistically the racially and financially underprivileged groups of perpetrators are punished more frequently and harshly. With this tendency in mind, the police force is already viewed in a complicated light, which escalates further when complex and unpopular novelties are implemented within their practices.
An example of such would be the implementation of body worn cameras into officers’ everyday use. What initially was hoped to aid in difficult cases with conflicting witnesses accounts turned into a borderline unethical, in the eyes of many, practice that has the potential to seriously invade one’s privacy. This paper discusses the reasons for implementation of this controversial practice back at 2014, as well as its positive and negative consequences for the law enforcement and the officers themselves.
Reasons for Implementation: Michael Brown’s Murder
The use of body worn cameras was recommended to the police force by the White House Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This decision was a response to a controversial and socially divisive case of the murder of a Black teenager, Michael Brown. The killing occurred in Missouri, and a police officer Darren Wilson has committed the shooting, but did not end up receiving charges, allegedly due to the contradicting incident accounts. The main testimonies with drastically different accounts of the event were made by Darren Wilson himself and Dorian Johnson, a friend of the victim who was with him at the time. Up until a certain point, the narratives match in crucial details, with both witnesses stating that Wilson interrupted Brown and Johnson having a walk and pulled them sideways.
The police officer and Brown then had a charged exchange through the open car window, with Wilson taking the first two shots. Johnson and Brown then attempted to leave, but the officer, irrationally provoked by their decision, followed the young men. In the end, when Brown turned around to the police car that was following him and his friend, Wilson fired at the victim twelve a total of twelve gunshots (Mizroeff, 2016). After this point, the testimonies diverge, with Wilson claiming he shot at response to Brown’s provocation, while Johnson insists there was no such behavior inflicted by Brown. Moreover, Johnson, as well as other witnesses of the shooting, stated that before being killed Brown specifically called out to Wilson, asking him not to shoot.
Although a killing of the other human being should hardly ever be allowed on moral and ethical grounds, the conflicting accounts of the shooting presented difficulties for the persecution. Under the existing laws and regulations of the United States, there are points at which police officers are allowed to open fire at the civilians. Thus, the persecutor’s office of the state Missouri concluded the inability to be certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that a crime has occurred. Without a detailed, uniform and, preferably, testable account of what happened, they claimed to be unable to decide whether or not Wilson criminally overstepped his jurisdiction. Understandably, Wilson not being charged resulted in a large civil unrest, accompanied by the wave of protests. The lethal use of force, widely perceived as unsolicited, highlighted the existing racial tensions within the American society. The Black community expressed its hurt and lack of belief in the possibility of justice due to the subconscious racist bias common to many American policemen (Shafritz & Borick, 2015). It is safe to say that public opinion on police integrity got seriously affected.
With this reasoning in mind, it is easier to understand why at the time of deliberate integration into the police practice, the BWCs were viewed favorably. The technology’s potential to increase the level of objectivity in contradictory and potentially divisive areas of life is undeniable. A video recording of events worn by an officer could hypothetically increase their accountability and protect the public from power abuse (Smykla et al., 2016). It was presented as a solution to the increasingly frequent confrontations between police officers and civilians, which in the aftermath of Brown’s death begun to escalate to violence more often. After the White House Report deliberately recommending the technology for wider use in law enforcement, a large proportion of the public believed it to be a promising de-escalation tool.
Effect on Policing and Public Perception
The existing research suggests the inefficiency of policing without support and acceptance within the local communities. The more socially disadvantaged areas in the major American cities are primarily populated by people of color due to the intersectional factors contributing to income inequality. These neighborhoods are often some of the most policed ones, but the policing is relatively ineffective since the law enforcement lacks public trust and cannot rely on its collaboration (Adams & Mastracci, 2018). Younger men generally are less likely to co-operate with the police, and it is safe to assume that the tendency only strengthened after Brown’s murder. Additionally, Black and Hispanic young men are pre-disposed to expect unfair treatment and avoid any contacts with the law enforcement, including the cases where they would need their assistance.
With this background information in mind, it becomes apparent how much the perceived procedural justice displayed by the police force affects their public perception. Particularly the marginalized communities find officers untrustworthy from the beginning and are not exactly unbiased in their negative expectations. Thus, the increase in the perceived legitimacy of the police actions, grounded in their increased levels of accountability, benefited the law enforcement’s efficiency in said communities. To specify, the wide implementation of the BWC’s disrupted the negative perception of a police officer as someone shielded from the force of law. Now, if an officer of duty was to shoot a random passerby without any inciting incident, it would be easy to prove.
Further research has indicated the positive impact the wide BWC’s implementation had on the percentage of non-violent resolutions of clashes between police officers and crime suspects. The aforementioned accountability acted as a restraining factor for both sides of the conflict when the confrontation could have otherwise turn violent. However, it is important to specify that one of the main criticisms of BWCs focuses on insufficient academic research on the topic. The speed at which the technology was implemented by the police departments nationwide quickly outgrew the pace of any scientific analysis of the titular tool.
Nevertheless, the BMC usage in law enforcement has scientific baking of psychological theory of deference, which states that one’s behavior is altered when observed by someone else. It has been proven that the BWCs increase the likelihood of the by-the-book behavior exhibited by the officers, as well as their professionalism on bureaucratical and emotional levels (Crow et al., 2017). Furthermore, a clear, although not widely discussed, the benefit of BMCs lies in their opportunity to fight against corruption in law enforcement. Once again, an officer is aware of the possibility of being requested access to their BWC by a superior should a suspicion in an illegal activity arise.
The main negative consequence of BMC implementation might be considered a flip side of its greatest strength. If one operates under a cynical perception of the police force as a deeply corrupt and racist unit, the efficiency of BMCs is questionable. At least in some cases, certain departments were willing to overlook the inappropriate use of violence provided it was committed by a member of their unit (Crow et al., 2017). Hypothetically speaking, a critique of the titular technology might always state that nothing protects the recording from turning out useless if there is no internal investigation initiated. In this case, the implementation of BMCs would be a costly project and a waste of taxpayers’ money, as well as a widespread production being harmful to the environmental status of the country.
On a similar note, it is important to consider that during the confrontations with civilians, be they crime suspects or otherwise. Police officers are not the only ones being recorded. By being caught by a BWC, a person with an uncovered face might get noticed by the law enforcement department in ways they wish they weren’t. The sinister ring of this argument fades away when one considers the disproportionate distribution of crime chargers against non-White Americans and the prevalence of bias displayed by the policemen. The accountability culture holds the potential to optimize the justice system in the country by introducing an opportunity to obtain undeniable proof of wrongdoing by either side. By itself, however, it is not enough to structurally change the more powerful of the two sides in the conflict, which has a long-standing history of prejudice and violent behavior.
Effect on the Officers
The examination of this subject would have been incomplete without the analysis of the impact the BWCs have on the officers themselves. Despite the complicated history of law enforcement in general, and particularly in the United States and other racially divided nations, it is important to recognize the human factor influence. Any institution is comprised of people who then adapt to transformations and policy changes this institution undergoes. And some of these changes are more impactful to the affected individuals then the ones that provoke a simple resistance to change.
Strictly speaking, the existing display rules that regulate the police officers’ conduct prohibit any expression of negative emotions, be it fear, anger, pain, or otherwise. This largely unreasonable and unfeasible demand has caused discussions even before the BWCs wide implementation, with many linking it to the burnout phenomenon in the police force. With the introduction of recordings into daily practice, however, the officers have begun to increasingly suppress their emotions, often without any healthy alternatives or outlets. Many officers excessively use dark or self-deprecating humor as a coping mechanism against the stress and danger of their tasks.
Once again, many of the prevalent officers involved in the debate spoke up about the lack of research on the topic of BWCs, this time from a psychological standpoint. The behavioral code implemented by the law enforcement is incredibly strict, mostly to increase its effectiveness in life or death situations. This strictness, however, might be excessive on the casual level of reactions and interactions, since it, to a point, robs officers of their humanity. The concept of a demeanor complaint exists in policing, where an officer might be fined for breaking their composure, which is seen as damaging their integrity and credibility (Adams & Mastracci, 2018). With BWCs coming into play, such incidents are now easy to track or prove, for many increasing an already overwhelming work-related stress. It all comes down to a lack of cohesion between different perspectives on credibility, power and emotional expression.
However, as much as the introduction of BWCs highlights the existing problems within the police code of conduct, one must admit that the technology is not a core reason for said problems. The system requires transformation both externally and internally, ensuring the protection of the human rights and safety of the civilians while establishing psychologically feasible working conditions for the officers. As people in the position of power, police officers benefit from achieving an internal understanding of accountability within the existing regulatory systems. It is not unheard of for the law enforcement agents to perceive themselves as above punishment since they have the power to administer it themselves. BWCs are by no means perfect, particularly in their impact to the officers’ mental health and wellbeing, but the issues police agents experience in these areas go deeper than any technology.
In a strangely symbolic manner, the BWCs played a key role in yet another racially charged case of a police officer shooting a black American while on duty. During the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin, charged with the murder of George Floyd, the videos collected from the officers present at the scene significantly aided the persecution. The courtroom members were able to see the murder from multiple angles, thus eliminating any potential doubts in Chauvin’s degree of involvement. The parallels between this case and Brown being shot back in 2014 did not go by unnoticed by the public, with the increase in the number of positive statements made about the BWC technology.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that many of the issues outlined in this paper are related to deeper problems evident within the existing law enforcement structure. BWCs and, especially, the response to them, highlighted the lack of trust towards the police institution from many ordinary Americans. It put in the spotlight the need for functioning internal report mechanisms and better support systems for the officers themselves, who often struggle to achieve the standard that code demands of them. Finally, it pointed out the inconsistencies and unreasonable demands within the code itself and how these factors might correlate with inappropriate behaviors and dangerous coping mechanisms displayed by the officers. As the servants of law enforcement, police officers command authority and power, but the law enforcement itself must change to suit better the needs of the society it exists in.
Adams, I., & Mastracci, S. (2018). Police Body-Worn Cameras: Effects on Officers’ Burnout and Perceived Organizational Support. Police Quarterly, 22(1), 5-30. Web.
Crow, M., Snyder, J., Crichlow, V., & Smykla, J. (2017). Community Perceptions of Police Body-Worn Cameras. Criminal Justice And Behavior, 44(4), 589-610. Web.
Mirzoeff, N. (2016). The Murder of Michael Brown. Social Text, 34(1 126), 49-71. Web.
Shafritz, J., & Borick, C. (2015). Cases in Public Policy and Administration: From Ancient Times to the Present. Routledge.
Smykla, J., Crow, M., Crichlow, V., & Snyder, J. (2016). Police Body-Worn Cameras: Perceptions of Law Enforcement Leadership. American Journal Of Criminal Justice, 41(3), 424-443. Web.