When a meteor shower rained down over Russia early last year, the internet was full of mesmerizing clips. The videos showed snowy roads under a crisp winter sky, which was suddenly filled with glowing orange meteor particles that burned as they entered the earth’s atmosphere. It was a rare glimpse of a primal force of nature — made possible by Russian insurance companies.
For years, Russian drivers have been using dashboard-mounted cameras to document their drives. They do this not for the scenic routes in Siberia or the rare chance of meteor showers but because of possible traffic accidents. The footage from their cameras helps exonerate them in court proceedings and ensures that insurance companies pay out compensation for damages that were no fault of their own. Video trumps human witnesses — and has the nice side-effect of producing hours of film featuring reckless driving in Russia.
All this came to my mind when I heard the latest calls to equip police officers with cameras. In the wake of ongoing protests in the U.S., countless pundits have renewed their claim to outfit each police officer with a camera to ensure they can be held accountable in unclear cases — such as the shooting of Michael Brown, in which the details are muddy at best. A camera, they argue, would most certainly have led to proceedings against officer Darren Wilson.
It is impossible to verify that claim. But the overall demand isn’t without merit: The popularity of GoPro cameras has demonstrated that always-on cameras have long arrived in the mainstream. These cameras are small, unobtrusive and — thanks to advances in data store and video technology — can record for hours. In fact, it is so cheap to do so that one could presumably create a record of each hour of one’s life from now on. No wonder various photography writers have said that we are witnessing the emergence of a new art form: A seamless record of everyday life, brought about by omnipresent cameras.
But does that mean all police officers should be equipped with them? I am not so sure about that.
The reason is that any proliferation of cameras in everyday life seems undesirable. It is argued that cameras protect those that act in accordance with the law and serve as a deterrence to criminals. In cities like London, cameras now peer down from all corners. And yet most crimes are an act of passion — so while cameras may prevent premeditated murder to occur in front of them, they can’t prevent those cases of snap judgement that accompanies all too many cases. Crime keeps happening.
The argumentation is equally flawed as that supporting dragnet surveillance by intelligence services: “Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear” — but almost everybody has something to hide, if only for the sake of privacy. Cameras are an invasion of everyone’s privacy — not just that of a police officer.
What makes the cases of police brutality particularly aggravating is that officers are — at least on paper — acting in the interest of the state and by extension in that of the general public living in that state. Holding them accountable makes sense since we are paying their salaries by way of taxes. But the same is true for all other public service employees — they are working for us and receive some of our taxes as compensation. The public service sector isn’t known for violent behavior — but that doesn’t mean no injustices take place there. If cameras are employed to monitor police officers, they could just as well be used to fight corruption in public office. You see where I am going here: Asking for cameras on any state employee makes the case for cameras on others — and privacy is at stake once more.
The case of Michael Brown also has certain parallels with that of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman merely a year ago. Once more, an unarmed black teenager was shot — and the details were so vague that the shooter walked free. Zimmermann was no police officer, but doesn’t the argument for a camera apply in his case as well? You can’t equip each and every person with a camera, but it illustrates the slippery slope these demands ultimately constitute.
On his podcast Theory of Everything, Benjamin Walker recently featured an illuminating interview with the inventor of a workplace surveillance technology It is a piece of software that records a worker’s activity on their work computer and can even snap the occasional image of them via the built-in webcam. It was clearly creepy — but not unthinkable in a world that tries to find technological solutions to problems as wide-ranging as employee performance.
Cameras can’t prevent Russian traffic accidents or police brutality either. They are a quick fix at best rather than a solution to the problems that led to the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson: Racism, stigmatization and — particularly in the U.S. — a dangerous gun culture that tries to prevent violence with violence. Let’s fix that.