Who Watches the Watchmen?

This past week, prosecutors in St. Louis County, Missouri, failed to secure a grand jury indictment against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. In Cleveland, newly released surveillance video captured by a nearby camera shows police officers fatally shooting twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. The video differs from accounts the officers gave of the shooting. In New York City, a rookie police officer shot and killed unarmed Akai Gurley in a darkened housing project stairwell. In Utah, it was reported that police in the state kill more people than gang violence. In defiance of federal law, many police departments fail to report statistics on officer-involved shootings to the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, in Rialto, California, complaints against the police force have decreased by 88%, and instances of police using force against suspects has decreased by 60%, all in the three years since the city required its officers to wear cameras on their bodies.

The idea of living in a society under constant surveillance is disturbing. No one who is being watched all the time is ever free. Being watched is the equivalent of being suspected, shifting the burden of proof from the state on to those being surveilled. There is no more efficient way to make a person feel like a criminal than training eyes on everything they do. Being watched changes a person’s behavior, even if they are not, or had no intention of, doing something illegal. There is no expectation of privacy while outside the home, but there is an expectation of trust. Most people are not criminals. Most people are not up to no good. Being watched shows a lack of trust in all people, and is counter to the very idea of personal freedom.

The argument for surveillance is that if a person has nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear. This is ridiculous. Everyone has something to hide, legal or illegal. And we all have something to fear: government overreach. Rather than being an argument for increased surveillance, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ is instead a two-pronged attack on the powers of government. A government that watches its citizenry under the guise of public safety will inevitably become a government that watches its citizenry for signs of dissent. A crime-fighting tool almost instantly becomes a tool of suppression, further shifting the balance of power away from the ideal of government existing by permission of the people, towards the people being allowed their freedoms at the discretion of the government.

Which brings us back to the police.

The idea of police officers wearing cameras does not damage personal freedoms as wanton surveillance does. In the case of police cameras, it is not the citizenry that is being watched, but the agents of government. This is an important distinction. While footage from police cameras can and should be used to aid in prosecutions, cameras remove much of the ambiguity surrounding events in which the police are involved. The government has rights, powerful rights, that the citizenry does not have. The government has the ability to seize funds directly from a person’s paycheck. They have the right to force a citizen to take up arms for the country in the form of a military draft. They have the right to incarcerate a person, often for life, against a person’s will. Sometimes, no crime or conviction is necessary in order to do so. Most ominously, the government holds the monopoly on legitimate violence, giving it the power of life and death over the citizenry.

Some police departments across the country have been resistant to the idea of their officers wearing cameras, concerned that it will change the behavior of officers, and also make it harder to obtain convictions. It is a very sweet-tasting vintage of schadenfreude when the agents of authority are concerned that surveillance will change otherwise lawful behavior. As for making convictions harder, this attitude betrays the idea that a police officer’s word is more credible than an average person’s. It is not. Everyone is capable of misremembering events, especially during moments of extreme stress, and everyone, including those who wear badges, is capable of lying. Criminal convictions should be hard to get. In a healthy society it is difficult to take away a person’s freedom, even if they are guilty of committing a crime. The easier it is to get a conviction, the more likely it becomes that the convicted party is innocent, or that the prosecution could be motivated by factors other than punishing a crime.

Because police, as representatives of government, are endowed with the power to exercise violence on the citizenry, and play a pivotal part in incarcerating people, it is essential that they be watched more closely than the citizenry they supposedly protect. Cameras are a powerful step towards ensuring that protecting citizens is what the police do, rather than protecting the state or oppressing minorities and the lower classes.

Police cameras, worn by every street officer in every department in the country, would do much to strengthen the rights of the people, by providing a third set of eyes to every confrontation the police have. As evidenced by the video of the shooting in Cleveland, sometimes events captured on video differ from that as told by the police. One is left to wonder, if the police in the Cleveland video had known they were being recorded, would they have given a more accurate account of what occurred? Or would the shooting have happened at all? The same can be written of countless encounters between police and people in any given year.

The people have a right to privacy. Government, because it is the single greatest threat to our freedoms, has almost none.