Last year, TechKnow rode along with Oakland police officers who wear cameras on their uniforms, one piece of cop technology that—unlike the military-grade weaponry seen in Ferguson, Missouri—has a strong case to make for being both effective and potentially welcomed by communities and police departments alike.
When technology is used to expand the reach of those tasked with keeping us safe, figuring out where to draw the line is more challenging—and the stakes are even higher. Do unmanned military drone strikes save American lives by keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way or do they endanger American lives by killing innocent civilians and creating more people who want to do us harm? And do cameras that read license plates in a matter of seconds protect us from crime or do they create a system where our movements can be tracked by a “Big Brother” government?
As a resident of the community he polices, Oakland Police Department Capt. Ersie Joyner III, says he understands those “Big Brother” concerns. “I wear two hats. I’m a law enforcement person responsible and dedicated to, obligated to policing this city, as well as a lifelong Oakland resident who’s also concerned about his privacy and the privacy of my family.”
For Joyner, technology like ShotSpotter, license plate readers (LPRs) and body cameras strike a fair balance between security and privacy.
“Everything that a license plate reader captures, everything ShotSpotter captures, everything our lapel camera captures is all within public view,” Joyner says. “I very much understand individuals’ wants and needs for privacy. But I think there’s a perfect balance in regards to public safety and being able to capture data that’s in public review.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that admits to taking “a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras,” has been tracking two of the technologies transforming police work—license plate readers and body cameras. And while they give a cautious thumbs-up to body cameras, they are sounding alarm bells for LPRs. In a report released in July of 2013, the ACLU acknowledged LPRs can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, but warned the technology poses serious threat to privacy and civil liberties:
“More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives… If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals.”
In October of 2013, the ACLU also released a report on law enforcement use of body cameras. The organization saw this technology as a potential win-win for the public and police.
“For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks.”
Oakland PD’s Joyner says the public’s reaction to police officers wearing body cameras has been all over the map.
“We’ve had journalists questioning in regards to why didn’t officers have their cameras on during this protest,” Joyner says. “We’ve had people say on camera that they were upset that officers were actually videotaping them. We also have a group of people that actually welcome the cameras because they feel like, ‘Hey, this camera’s also going to help prove that I didn’t do what these officers are alleging I did.’ And, they’ve actually said, ‘Hey, I hope the camera was on.’”
A recent study done in the Southern California city of Rialto suggests that body cameras can have a big impact on policing. The first year police wore the cameras, incidents where police officers used force dropped by close to 60 percent. Complaints filed against officers dropped by 88 percent.
Oakland PD Officer Brian Hernandez says the cameras hold the public accountable too. “It kind of puts the accountability not just on us,” Hernandez says. “It puts it on the person we’re making contact with. So, they know everything’s being documented. They can’t just make us out to be the bad guy, which really works to our advantage.”