Body Cameras Work Both Ways

This piece from the Columbia Journalism Review caught my eye. It discusses the ongoing saga of former University of Missouri Professor Melissa Click.  Professor Click wound up losing her job in part for her stupidity in calling for “muscle” to remove a student journalist from a public campus.  Turns out, that was only part of the reason for  her dismissal.  At a homecoming event last October, Professor Click apparently cursed at a police officer as he moved protestors off a street.   

The incident with the student journalist was captured on video operated by the aforementioned student journalist.  The second incident was captured on body camera footage worn by the officer who received the verbal abuse.   It came to light via a public records request by the student newspaper.   

In the CJR piece, Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, is quoted as saying that the release of the body-cam video “has the feel of surveillance being used for piling on.”  I have a lot of respect for the ACLU. But I respectfully disagree with Mr. Stanley on this one.  I don’t see a police worn body camera as “surveillance.”  The purpose of the body camera is to record police interaction with the community.  This footage will serve at least two valuable purposes – it will verify or debunk claims of police misconduct and it will limit police misconduct.  But when the camera records police/community interaction, members of the community, by definition will be recorded while that interaction unfolds.   

If that interaction occurs in an area where there is an expectation of privacy, there is a legitimate concern with balancing the privacy interests with the need for police accountability.  But where the interaction occurs in public, I’m not seeing it.  And to the extent the University (or any other employer) wants to go on a fishing expedition to gather evidence to support a firing, there are protections around that practice.  I don’t know if that’s the case here, but again, the problem isn’t the public availability of body camera footage showing Professor Click mouthing off to a cop.  

The body camera wasn’t focused on Professor Click or turned on just because she started cursing. If that were the case, I’d be more sympathetic.  But the reality is, police will increasingly wear body cameras.  If you get in a range, you will be recorded.  And if that occurs on a public street, the footage is going to be publicly available.  If that is troubling, it is a reasonable price to pay for the advantages increased police transparency offers.