Civil Libertarians Are in Love with Big Brother’s Body Cameras

In the last year, the popularity and sale of police-worn body cameras has gone through the roof.
In the last year, the popularity and sale of police-worn body cameras has gone through the roof. (@kcautv)

EspañolCall me a cynic, but it seems like the wool has been pulled over our eyes.

Following a rash of police-brutality cases in recent years, civil libertarians across the country — and around the world, even — are now nearly in lockstep behind the idea of body cameras as a means to curb the use of excessive force.

However, the evidence that police-worn cameras will lead to greater accountability is next to nil, while all signs point to this technology as the next phase in the ever expanding police and surveillance state.

While the technology itself is still relatively new, the idea of body-worn cameras on law enforcement officers has been circulating for some time now. The scheme picked up steam after the release of the infamous Rialto study in early 2013 — a study which suffers from significant confounds and offers dubious conclusions about the effectiveness of these cameras, which I have written about extensively in the past.

Following the highly publicized police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, President Barack Obama issued an executive order authorizing US$263 million in taxpayer dollars to “improve training” in local police departments across the country, as well as the purchase of 50,000 body-worn cameras.

The move was loudly praised by civil libertarians, progressives, and specifically the Black Lives Matter movement, as an important step in addressing the crisis of police brutality and lack of accountability in our cities. Conservatives, on the other hand, generally scorned the president for “delegitimizing” the police, tying their hands, and even warned of Obama’s plans to “nationalize local police.”

As usual, the public was divided on the issue. Trapped in a sea of hysteria and sensationalism, few have been able to see the forest for the trees — or in this case, the panopticon for the surveillance cameras.

The same is happening now with the debate over the use of body cameras by Border Patrol agents.

US Customs and Border Protection — an agency with its own host of problems, and which has essentially granted its agents a license to kill with impunity along the US-Mexico border — has toyed around with the idea of body cameras since at least March of 2014.

They too were responding to charges of abuse and brutality, namely the killing of nearly a dozen unarmed Mexican teenagers, who were each accused of having “thrown a rock” at a Border Patrol agent. In each of these cases, the agent claimed he feared for his life, and had no choice but to return deadly fire against the alleged rock thrower.

Almost immediately after CBP’s announcement in March 2014 that it would look into issuing these cameras to field agents, the clamor began for the agency to quickly adopt the technology, likely to the delight of body-camera manufacturers like Taser Inc., which, coincidentally, collaborated with the Rialto Police Department in the aforementioned study. Incidentally, and unsurprisingly, the bodycam business has soared since Obama issued his executive order one year ago.

Just this past November, CBP made waves once again following initial reports that the agency would not distribute body cameras to its officers after all. The Los Angeles Times obtained a draft copy of an internal review that found that the cameras had “limited effectiveness,” and concluded that a “a full-scale deployment on every person is not necessary.”

Of course, those reports were met with derision from so-called civil-liberties groups and pro-immigration advocates, like the National Immigration Forum, which called on CBP to “step up” and issue the body cameras to “help keep people safe.”

Less than a week later, after some apparent backpedaling, CBP put out a press release stating that the agency will, in fact, “take steps to study expanded use of cameras in and around the border environment,” and will begin to use body cameras at “checkpoints, aircraft certificate inspections, vessel boarding and interdictions, and outbound operations at ports of entry.”

The press release concludes that “expanded camera use can have a wide variety of benefits for CBP.”

And that’s the key. It’s the answer to the question that most civil-liberties advocates, for whatever reason, fail to ask: who will actually benefit from this technology?

Our intuition tells us that police officers will behave differently if they know their actions are being recorded, but as I have explained before, this “observer effect” only works in the short term, and only if the person being observed believes that his actions will have consequences.

Given the staggering number of cases involving police misconduct caught on camera, in which the offending officer walks away scot-free, we have no reason to think cops will be held responsible for their misdeeds, and neither do they.

A YouTube search for “police brutality” will quickly illuminate the fact that we do not suffer from a lack of video evidence; we clearly have an accountability problem.

Putting more surveillance tools in the hands of the state cannot and will not solve this issue. What we need is a revolutionary change in our thinking, in our relationship with the state, and in our unwillingness to treat state agents as anything other than untouchable “heroes” who can do no wrong.

In addition, there are far too many people who resign themselves to the “something is better than nothing” manner of thinking. That is simply not true; when it comes to demands for the state to “do something,” many times, it’s much worse.

Body cameras on cops and Border Patrol agents are a terrible idea, but the public’s indignation over recent police-brutality cases has hit such a fevered pitch that is has managed to convince well-meaning civil libertarians to get behind the state’s false solution and demand more surveillance.

When the president announced his body-camera decree, civil libertarians treated themselves to a round of high-fives. Obama flexed his executive muscle, and civil libertarians actually cheered. Imagine that.

This is where we are in 21st-century America. In an age when most people shrug off state surveillance because they “have nothing to hide,” we are now begging Big Brother to watch us more, in the hopes that his agents will kill us less.

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