Transparency, Technology and Policing

The fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri demonstrates the need for more transparent policing. The facts about the police shooting that sparked the riots are not clear–there is no objective record of what went on. There will surely be testimony from both members of the police force and the public about the incident, but testimony about such incidents on both sides can be biased and indeed even false.

Fortunately, technology empowers us to have better records. Police can wear cameras that record video with sound both during the day and at night. The footage could help determine what actually occurred in incidents like the one in Ferguson. By providing a more objective record, they would also deter misconduct. And they would encourage firmer policing when needed because police would have more confidence that they would not be falsely accused of brutality or murder. Finally, they would make protests less likely as society would be more like to converge on a true understanding of what happened and justice would be swifter.

Police forces should install  more video cameras in public spaces of high crime areas. These cameras provide footage from a variety of angles. The footage helps police investigate crimes but also records interactions between the police and other citizens.

State police should also copy the best innovation from Eric Holder’s Justice Department—the requirement that federal agencies, like the FBI, videotape confessions. Such videotaping simultaneously deters misconduct and makes confessions more reliable.

Jennifer Mnookin, professor at the UCLA School of Law has argued that videotaping confessions is not perfect. For instance, the position of the camera may make jurors think the confession is more or less believable. Footage from wearable cameras used in police work will often be less than optimal. But the question is not whether the information provided will be perfect but whether it will help get at the truth. Truth is elusive but can be caught by a process of triangulation, building fact upon fact. Cameras could be an important part of building up criminal facts. They would make it much harder for witnesses to fabricate stories, for fear of being contradicted by the videotape. And over time, as technological progress accelerates, monitoring devices can become ever more accurate — all the more reason police departments should get in the habit of using them.

Society benefits from both security and civil liberty. Greater transparency born of technology means we can have more of both.