Military and Police

While Trying to Improve Cop-Community Relations, Are Body-Worn Cameras Creating a Wider Divide?

Yesterday, I had an experience with advances in law enforcement technologies that had me reflecting on police-community relations. Political leaders in many jurisdictions are constantly calling for better understanding, more confidence, and enhanced trust between communities and their law enforcement officers. With regard to police officers’ body-worn cameras, are the advocates truly considering all the consequences?

I was walking with my wife on a popular walk-bike path. As we were headed back to our car, we met two Seattle cops. I knew both officers. But, instead of the friendly, relaxed greeting most cops give each other, the officers had a strange, hesitant expression, almost as if they wanted to apologize. One officer said, “You’re being video recorded. I gotta turn this thing off. We didn’t find who we were looking for anyway.” The other officer added, “But you’re still being audio recorded.” They seemed uncomfortable and guarded.

(Credit: Facebook/Winfield Police Department)

This changed the entire nature of the encounter. If I felt the awkwardness as a retired cop, I wondered how an average person feels talking to what are increasingly becoming blue automatons instead of flesh-and-blood police officers. I had a camera in my car and an audio recorder on my belt, but the city had been only testing body-worn cameras at the time I retired. So, I began to wonder: If I adjusted my behavior with these cops I knew, how could any person be relaxed with an officer who was either audio and/or video recording their conversation?

I’m not saying body-worn cameras don’t have positives. Good cops have been exonerated by a camera, and truly abusive officers can be called to account for their bad behavior. Honest people can argue the benefits and liabilities.

I’m not saying body-worn cameras don’t have positives. Good cops have been exonerated by a camera, and truly abusive officers can be called to account for their bad behavior. Honest people can argue the benefits and liabilities.

While with them, every thought I had was hyper-filtered before I spoke, even if it was innocuous. I wondered if anything I said could be used against them. For example, what if, as cops are known to do (ask any cop’s spouse), I told a “war story” or used gallows humor about a past incident or gave my opinion about the mayor? What if the officers laughed at my joke or agreed with my opinion? Silly? Maybe, but it’s some of what went through my head. I can imagine the average person might wonder if what they’re saying could be used against them—even if it could not.

But are city leaders considering this aspect of cop-community relations as a part of the conversation? Or is it only about catching cops doing wrong?

How much do you think any person wants to report a crime when Officer Friendly is wearing a body-worn camera and is recording you and your every word?

I find it interesting that leftists, who generally support body-worn cameras for cops, talk a lot about government not doing things that interfere with people cooperating with the police. They always and every time use this argument when defending illegal immigrants and sanctuary cities. Well, how much do you think any person wants to report a crime when Officer Friendly is wearing a body-worn camera and is recording you and your every word? If you’re afraid of someone finding out you made the report, being video and audio recorded can only make that worse.

LAPD officer explains his body-worn camera capability to some curious teens. Here, live footage of the cop’s body camera’s real-time recording is being shown via cell phone. (Credit: Facebook/LAPD Headquarters)

Do those politicians who make these decisions take these issues into serious consideration? Shouldn’t they? Remember, as much as there are reasonable arguments for body-worn cameras, regarding officer safety and officer oversight, the vast majority of people affected by body-worn cameras are just law-abiding people interacting with police officers. Policies that increasingly mandate the cameras be activated for more and more of an officer’s shift seem overkill. Does the cost-benefit analysis enhance or diminish cop-community relations? Society should keep in mind the unintended consequences of new technologies. We should not ignore that even with these “solutions” some things might get worse—like police-community relations. Isn’t this worth a look?

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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