A media studies professor studies the impacts of police body cameras
Often seen as a tool to hold police officers accountable, police-worn body cameras have come under attack for consistently failing to achieve this goal and for creating privacy complications.
Bryce Newell, assistant professor of media studies in the School of Journalism and Communication, addresses controversies surrounding body-worn cameras in his research and new book, “Police visibility: confidentiality, surveillance and the false promise of body-worn cameras.”
“One of the things I was watching and thinking about was what police-worn body cameras mean to people interacting with officers,” Newell said. “The most monitored communities will be those whose images and sound are captured much more frequently than other communities.”
As a result, Newell said, individuals in over-policed communities may be targeted with much higher frequency by law enforcement for minor offenses, leading to distrust of police on the part of those same communities.
While working on his doctorate in information science at the University of Washington, Newell became interested in issues surrounding privacy and surveillance, particularly police surveillance. He began working with the Washington State Police Department which piloted police-worn body cameras.
He found that while police-worn body cameras held some officers accountable, bystander video had more of an impact on holding officers accountable for their actions. This phenomenon has created uncertainty for police departments, as citizens can post their own images anywhere, including on social media sites, where they can be widely shared.
“With the body camera footage, the officers feel like they can control the narrative a bit more,” Newell said. “They can tilt their body and point it where they want. They can start and stop recording whenever they want. In my work, I argue that what police officers really fear is a lack of control over what is recorded and how it is communicated to the wider public. They could potentially be put in a bad light for doing something they don’t want the community to see.
When police respond to sensitive situations like domestic violence calls, Newell said privacy issues arise when their images reveal where people live and show them the most vulnerable. If a state has extensive public disclosure laws governing the release of police body camera footage, anyone can submit a public records request to view it, and police may not be able to redact information people shared with officers on camera. Some states, such as North Carolina, have passed laws requiring a court order to access footage from police-worn body cameras.
Throughout his research on this topic, Newell has discovered that body cameras worn by police do not always achieve the publicly stated goals of these programs.
“Police agencies in the United States have been pushing the idea that if we put cameras on officers, their work will be more visible,” Newell said. “What I’ve seen from the perspective of officers in Washington and other states is that cameras are more likely to be useful to them in capturing evidence, prosecuting people for various things, and aiding in court cases. of guilt.”
As technology becomes more advanced and police departments develop additional surveillance tools to capture on-the-job footage, Newell warns we will still have to find other ways to hold police accountable.
“We can’t forget how technology sits in the social context, because it makes others more visible – even more visible than the agents themselves,” he said. “We need to make sure that the laws of our states are set up to allow and restrict access to some of this information. We need to maintain strong rights for viewer video to happen, for citizens to record the police.
—By Alli Weseman, Class of ’22, School of Journalism and Communication
Alli Weseman (she/she) is a second-year student in SOJC’s Masters in Multimedia Journalism program in Portland. She has been independent for Portland Monthly Magazine and hopes to work in a newsroom one day.