David Brooks's New York Times column from Tuesday is a tally of all the things he worries will be lost as more and more police departments start issuing body cameras to their officers.
Brooks ultimately agrees with the case for body cameras: that after several high-profile cases in which police have been caught on video using deadly force against black men who didn't appear to pose a threat to them — and many more cases in which police used deadly force in questionable circumstances, but weren't recorded — police need to be watched to make sure they're not abusing their authority.
But Brooks is doing something he often does: warning that when people focus on what can be recorded and measured (in this case, police use of deadly force), something that can't be measured will be ignored and abandoned. In the case of police cameras, he thinks there's currently a zone of privacy and trust between a police officer and a citizen during an interaction, and that a camera would destroy that connection.
Some of his concerns are actually issues that police departments and experts are thinking about a lot and trying to find a good solution to: how to protect privacy when a police officer wears a body camera in someone's home, for example, or what gets done with footage after it's recorded. But at the heart of Brooks's column is another fear:
The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional. Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care.
There are certainly some places where the trust between citizens and police has been pretty thoroughly destroyed already. After Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, many residents asked the department to release the dashboard camera video — even after the department had made it clear no such video existed. That's a subzero level of trust. More broadly, it's hard to imagine that communities where police use surplus military equipment to serve routine warrants are overflowing with trust of law enforcement.
But in the places where police-community trust hasn't been damaged beyond repair, it seems that if cameras have any effect on citizen-police trust, it's a positive one.
Do citizens trust police less? Two different studies of body camera use — a study conducted in Rialto, California, by the Police Foundation and an internal evaluation conducted by the Mesa, Arizona, police department — showed a dramatic drop not just in use-of-force incidents, but in complaints of police misconduct from citizens when body cameras were used.
Do police trust citizens less? Police departments — which, remember, are usually deciding for themselves to put body cameras on their officers — have realized that being recorded while on the job can be as much of an asset for "good cops" as it is a liability for bad ones.
It can be a way for police departments to show they care about their communities. Just look at a very popular video last winter of Lowell, Michigan, police officers pulling families over to ask what they wanted for Christmas:
Recording can remind the public that cops often do dangerous and heroic things. This video that got national media attention was recorded by the body camera of a Georgia police officer saving a child from a burning home:
And recording can show that when they don't think anyone's watching, police, like the rest of us, get their Taylor Swift on:
The implication of what Brooks says — that a police officer wouldn't want to be caught giving someone a break — is that the officer's job is to enforce every law, and therefore he won't let his judgment override "the regulations" unless he can be sure no one else will ever know. But police officers aren't supposed to enforce every law — they're supposed to protect public safety. They're supposed to use their judgment (or implement the priorities of their superiors) about which laws to enforce to best serve that goal.
Getting a break on a ticket isn't always pulling one over on the system — it just means you've successfully persuaded a police officer that his time would be better served going after something else. That's part of policing, and it's not something body cameras are going to change.
The real question is who gets breaks from the system — and whether police officers are more likely to be suspicious of certain residents because of their race or dress or where they live. If police officers are enforcing the law to the letter in one neighborhood, and letting violations slide somewhere else, that's a problem that needs to be corrected. But it's just as possible that body cameras will provide an opportunity for police to get some good press by letting the world see their small acts of kindness toward the people they serve — and inspiring their communities to trust them more.