Like a lot of people, I’ve come to believe that it would be a good idea to put body-mounted cameras on police officers. I now believe this for several reasons.
First, there have been too many cases in which police officers have abused their authority and then covered it up. Second, it seems probable that cops would be less likely to abuse their authority if they were being tracked. Third, human memory is an unreliable faculty. We might be able to reduce the number of wrongful convictions and acquittals if we have cameras recording more events.
I’ve come to this conclusion, but I haven’t come to it happily. And, as the debate over cop-cams has unfolded, I’ve been surprised by how many people don’t see the downside to this policy. Most people don’t even seem to recognize the damage these cameras will do both to police-civilian relations and to privacy.
Let’s start with the basics.
Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment.
Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties.
All these concentric circles of privacy depend on some level of shrouding. They depend on the understanding that what happens between us stays between us.
Cop-cams chip away at that. The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him or that 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.
Putting a camera on the police officer means that authority resides less in the wisdom and integrity of the officer and more in the videotape. During a trial, if a crime isn’t captured on the tape, it will be presumed to never have happened.
Cop-cams will insult families. Most of the time cops are mediating disputes, helping those in distress, dealing with the mentally ill or going into some home where someone is having a meltdown. When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.
Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online – as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser.
So, yes, on balance, cop-cams are a good idea. But, as a journalist, I can tell you that when I put a notebook or a camera between me and my subjects, I am creating distance between me and them. Cop-cams strike a blow for truth, but they strike a blow against relationships. Society will be more open and transparent but less humane and trusting.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist.