Police body cameras and professional responsibility: Public records and private evidence

Wood, Stacy E.
Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture

Extensive media coverage has focused attention on the disproportionate frequency and severity of police use of force against black communities in the United States. Video documentation captured by public officials and private citizens aided by the ubiquity of cell phones has made this violence inescapable, enabling conversations of system-wide problems within a mainstream context. Video documentation has been posed as a means of increasing transparency on the part of police and the district attorneys tasked with the decision of whether or not a police shooting requires the indictment of an officer. This documentation is also simultaneously posed as a check against the unmitigated authority of officer testimony, as a financial windfall for companies selling the technology, and as the ultimate exoneration for police officers attempting to justify their decisions in the field. These concurrent rhetorical registers operate in different domains and rarely overlap. The enormous amount of attention that has been focused on body-camera programs belies a techno-utopian impulse, an investment in a technological fix to complex and interlocking historical and socio-political realities. With this attention, funding has followed, pre-existing body-camera programs have been extended, and pilot programs have launched, presenting new challenges for police departments whose resources cannot meet the fiscal demands of a dramatic technological shift in a short period of time. Similarly, policies and laws regarding these devices themselves as well as the footage they capture have been sluggish to coalesce around coherent principles. This paper examines the emergent markets, policies, and laws governing the footage captured by police-worn body cameras in the United States and employs this footage as a way to reckon with complex ethical issues for information professionals.