The Solution to Police Brutality: Digitization?
With a spike in police misconduct cases and public outcry, can digital technology, such as body cameras, help reverse this trend?
Media Focus on Police Brutality
During 2014-2016, the U.S. saw a rise in media coverage and civil unrest surrounding allegations of police misconduct and killings, mainly involving African-Americans. Technology played a crucial role as major news outlets covered stories of social media users on Twitter and Facebook expressing indignant feelings as well as sharing video footage of some of the violent encounters between officers and citizens. According to a study by The Washington Post, approximately 991 people were shot dead by the police in 2015. While a majority of these incidences involved white individuals, Black Americans accounted for 1/3 of the killings although they constitute only about 13% of the US population. Further alarming was the disproportionate number of Blacks who accounted for traffic-stop deaths – a fact that University of Kansas professor Charles Epp found to be directly correlated to the higher rates at which Blacks are pulled over by cops.
A significant catalyst for police reform in New York would be the city’s response to the July 2014 police-induced death of Eric Garner of Stated Island, who was stopped for a non-violence offense that would lead to what was seen as abusive police force and his ultimate death. Video footage of the incident was leaked to the Internet and viewed over 3 million times via YouTube. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio referred to the incident as a “terrible tragedy” that reflected strained relations between the police and communities of color.
In June 2015, the New York Police Department (NYPD) responded by releasing a detailed action plan for engaging with neighborhood residents to deter crime. The plan was organized under the “Five Ts” – tactics, technology, training, terrorism, and trust – to detail the initiatives the City would undertake, including the introduction of body cameras to better monitor conduct with citizens.
NYPD & Body Cameras
NYPD Officer wears pilot body camera
NYPD already began using 60 cameras in five test precincts as a soft pilot that resulted from a 2013 court order in which a US District judge found the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy to be unconstitutional in its racial profiling of Black and Latino men. Following the results of this test, the NYPD would plan to introduce about 1,000 body-worn cameras by fall 2016 to gain data on how the tools contribute to officer safety, provide evidence for criminal investigations, and improve police-community relations.
The larger pilot would require over $6 million to purchase the cameras. Beyond this investment, the City identified the challenge of “annually recurring costs in the tens of millions of dollars” for data storage. These costs would function into an already-planned increase of $81.6 Million between NYPD’s FY 2016 and FY 2017 budgets.
In addition to rising costs, body cameras pose many challenges over their usage. The NYU School of Law Policing Project posits that while civil liberties groups and communities of color favor the use of cameras, there are still privacy concerns of how often they are used, for what type of interaction, and how long the data is stored. Furthermore, the CATO Institute’s report on national police misconduct suggests that it is too early and inconclusive to identify body cameras as improving police behavior when studying results from other US cities.
I believe that there are some things that money, or at least technology, cannot buy – mainly trust and positive relationships. Body cameras may have some positive effect, but I believe they should remain a limited investment and short-term project given their inconclusive benefits and high costs for data storage. More investment should be made in the training of police officers to appropriately interact with communities of color and high-crime neighborhoods, especially in encounters when there is no presence of a violent threat. Focusing on the “Ts” of “Training” and “Trust” will lead to less costly and more sustainable support to crime deterrence and reducing police misconduct.
Still the question remains: can the trust between these communities and the police be gained at all, with or without technology?
 Funke, D., & Susman, T. (2016, July 12). From Ferguson to Baton Rouge: Deaths of black men and women at the hands of police. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-police-deaths-20160707-snap-htmlstory.html
 2015 Washington Post database of police shootings. (2015, April 11). Retrieved November 15, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/
 Lowery, W. (2015, December 24). A disproportionate number of black victims in fatal traffic stops. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/a-disproportionate-number-of-black-victims-in-fatal-traffic-stops/2015/12/24/c29717e2-a344-11e5-9c4e-be37f66848bb_story.html
 “Statement of Mayor Bill de Blasio on the Medical Examiner’s Report on the Death of Eric Garner”. Government of New York City. Mayor of New York City. August 1, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
 The City of New York, Press Office. (2015, June 25). Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Bratton Unveil New, Groundbreaking Neighborhood Policing Vision [Press release]. NYC.gov. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/440-15/mayor-de-blasio-commissioner-bratton-new-groundbreaking-neighborhood-policing-vision#/0
 Parascandola, R., Fermino, J., & Gregorian, D. (2013, August 12). Stop-frisk violated rights: Judge. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/stop-frisk-violated-rights-judge-article-1.1424287
 Developing the NYPD’s Information Technology. (2015, June 25). Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/home/POA/pdf/Technology.pdf
 Developing the NYPD’s Information Technology. (2015, June 25). Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/home/POA/pdf/Technology.pdf
 Report on the Fiscal 2017 Executive Budget New York Police Department. (2016, May 23). Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://council.nyc.gov/html/budget/2017/ex/nypd.pdf
Student comments on The Solution to Police Brutality: Digitization?
Thank you for addressing this issue. I watched Eric Garner video on Youtube and it´s brutal. Police misconduct cases are a huge issue in my country as well – in Rio only there are over 1,000 killings by the police each year, while US approximately has 1,000 in the entire country. Brazil is the world´s murderous country in the world, with over 60,000 each year, and an extremely violent police is definitely one of the causes of such a high number.[i]
I believe technology has the potential to improve these numbers: supervising the police has several good outcomes, including but not limited to:
– Reduce cases of misconduct
– Will allow police to run AAR (after-action review) to analyze what happened, why happened, and how a specific action can be done better
– Increase awareness of police´s dangerous job and perhaps help increase security budget
I strongly believe that technology can incentivize a change in behavior, therefore increasing trust levels between police and population.
I agree with all the costs related with such services, but I still think it´s an investment that is worth making, as it has the potential to not only save lives in the short-term, but also reduce government health and safety costs in the long-run.
Thank you for writing about this very difficult topic. I also do not have the answers as to whether the body cameras will inherently help the situation and lead to less violence and more understanding between the two communities. However, according to a New York Times article from this past October, not one NYPD officer is wearing a body camera yet. It seems a contract with the supplier had yet to be signed, but that they were intending to roll the program out beginning in a few months.  While other cities have rolled the program out, I think it is yet to be seen what the impact and long-term benefits or drawbacks will be of the cameras. Sadly we have seen cases caught on camera, some by a police car dashboard camera, which still unfold in terrible ways, despite the officer knowing the camera is on. For example, Breaion King, an African American school teacher, was treated horribly and violently by police officers after being pulled over. This was all caught on camera and did not deter the officers inappropriate actions.
I do hope that once officers have body cameras, they will constantly be more aware and vigilant and think twice about their actions.
I also think another interesting phenomena with regards to digital and police force is just with social media and how now every single person has a smart phone essentially and can record and share these horrific moments, which at least brings to light and surfaces issues and forces cities and judicial committees to face the event and take action.
I agree with @Yarden and am concerned that body cameras alone will not provide enough of a deterrent to solve the issue. As we’ve seen over the last two years, not only do many police officers act in deplorable ways even when they know the camera is running, they often go unpunished (a prime example is the Eric Garner case you mentioned. The officer that killed him used an illegal chokehold but was not indicted by a grand jury).
I agree with you, @MAW, that training could be a more impactful solution. In the article linked below, Shaun King talks about the fact that many police require less training than cosmologists in comparable areas, a fact which I found to be both surprising and disappointing.
Interesting post, Michael Alan! I agree with you that body cameras are not the correct long term solution and that police officers need to focus on training and trust, but in the short term, especially with Donald Trump winning the election, I’m extremely concerned for people of color in America. Despite the fact that stop and frisk was considered unconstitutional, Trump is a strong supporter of a national roll out . This, combined with his “Restoring Community Safety Act” from his 100 day plan which plans to “reduces surging crime, drugs and violence”  makes me a strong proponent of body cameras. While I don’t believe that it will change much in terms of behavior, I hope that it will help in terms of prosecution. However, my biggest problem with body cameras is the fact that officers have the ability to turn them off and on. There have been many documented cases over the last few years of officers being heard saying “turn [the camera] off”  or simply not having the camera on when participating in something that they know they can get in trouble for. While the amount of data that would be collected is an issue, I think that the cameras should always be on and be streamed to an off site location for 48 hours. If, during that 48 hours, something happens that needs to be reviewed, that video could be downloaded and saved, if not, it would automatically be deleted. I don’t think it’s a perfect plan, and it’s definitely an expensive plan, but in comparison to the price of life, I think it’s worth a shot.
MAW — critical topic that’s only been gaining traction in the past few years. I’m wondering if you’ve read “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, which features a prominent internet company that ultimately works with the government to institute massive surveillance measures in an attempt to maintain the safety, security and transparency of global citizens. Though the book is fiction, what it highlights is that there is a massive grey area in this space, which you’ve highlighted: 1. How far is too far? 2. Does this really measure the right accountability? 3. How else can/will this be applied? 4. For what period and future use is data stored? 5. What else would be captured that could be considered threatening to others? 6. Most importantly, what are the pitfalls of using this technology exclusively versus what you identified can never be replaced — positive relationships and trust?
This discussion is at the forefront of many political and social justice arenas — thanks for shedding greater light on its inception and current use. I am eager — and a bit anxious — to see what happens next.
Thank you for this post! Tensions between police agencies and different communities are at all time highs and we must find a way to improve this. I think the application of these body cameras will increase accountability and reduce incidence of police misconduct. That being said, I do not think they will fix the larger issue here which is one of race based stereotyping. If the goal is to eliminate that, then the cameras will not be overly beneficial. That being said, if the cameras can limit incidences of race based police misconduct then they will be extremely effective. I think that these cameras are critical to building trust within the community because officers will be held accountable for all actions.
Thanks for the post!
Hey Michael Alan,
Great post–thank you for shining light on this critical issue! I think your assessment makes a ton of sense and really resonates with how I see this issue. Police brutality needs to be addressed, technology can play some part, but body cameras alone are not the solution. As you note, many of the recent police killings of unarmed people of color were documented on camera (albeit civilians taking cell phone videos, not police body cameras), and that has not actually led to consistent indictment or punishment for the police. I also really agree with your point that the trust and community engagement components are critical.
The NYPD is doing some interesting things to try to restore its credibility and legitimacy with communities of color, and some of these changes and interventions involved technology. I had the chance to meet with the NYPD’s deputy director of IT last year, and she highlighted some elements of organization change and tech integration, including:
-Creation of new role “Neighborhood Coordinating Officer” who would have dedicated time to building relationships in communities (1)
-New, interactive training and curriculum (2)
-Integrating new, community-centric metrics into the data tracked in CompStat (3)
-Creating a new “Mobility Initiative” designed to give all officers mobile technology access so they can interact with citizens more easily in varying contexts
-NYPD has struggled with using them to foster productive interactive conversations with communities. To address this challenge, the NYPD recently launched a new platform called “IdeaScale,” which aims to crowdsource public concerns by giving citizens an easily accessible and anonymous communication platform and then promoting posts and ideas with large followings. (4)
These changes are all exciting, but I think the NYPD still has a lot to do in terms of building out the right metrics (CompStat’s legacy is so fraught and hard to address), ensuring that new tech tools and platforms are as citizen-centered as possible, and pairing new tech with deep investments in outreach.
Thanks for your post!
1. (NYPD). “The Way Forward.”
2. New York City Police Department (NYPD). “Training: Bringing the NYPD Into the 21st Century.” http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/home/POA/pdf/Training.pdf.
3. New York City Police Department (NYPD). “Trust: Bridging the Police/Community Divide.”
4. Mueller, Benjamin, and Jeffrey E. Singer. “New York Police to Use Social Media to Connect with Residents.”, The New York Times, March 25, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/nyregion/nypd-to-use-social-media-platform-to-address-quality-of-life-issues.html?_r=0.
Michael, thanks for your thoughtful post. One thing I wonder here is if there is a way for the American public to actually benefit from the introduction of cameras on police officers. Taser, the company, is one of the larger manufacturers of body cameras and they have succeeded in securing many of the contracts throughout the country. I worry about the current implementation as it is controlled entirely be the police and I imagine that there are ways to adjust the data.
Furthermore, it is very difficult to actually interpret the data from the cameras. This spring, the NYT published an article (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/01/us/police-bodycam-video.html) where they included video and asked the audience various questions about the video. The results of the survey were that the biases were the most important indicator of how the video was interpreted. I wonder if this is one case where technology will not be the solution and a cultural shift must happen within the U.S. police departments.
Very fascinating and well written blog post. I found your article to be both insightful and timely. Further, I think you did a great job explaining the significance of technology in the context of policing and police brutality. Given the recent revelations and exposure of police brutality as a result of camera phones, I believe that investment in body cams should be in every jurisdiction in the country. It would ensure fair treatment and equal protection under the law for all citizens as well as for the official. I’m not sure I understand the push back from certain parties and this seems like a no brainer in many ways.