Beyond Body Cams: Emerging Technologies That Could Help Make Police More Accountable

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Video footage of police choking unarmed New Yorker Eric Garner to death horrified the nation in July. Yet despite the video evidence of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in the chokehold that caused his death, he was legally exonerated Wednesday of any wrongdoing.

In response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO over the summer, everyone from civil rights advocates to the president has called for the widespread use of police-worn body cameras. President Obama pledged $75 million Monday to help police departments implement body cameras, an effort to bolster race relations between law enforcement and minority communities and prevent a militarized police culture.

Body cams have been lauded for their ability to provide an objective record of police encounters. Moreover, police tend to have fewer violent conflicts when wearing them, because they behave differently when they know they’re being recorded.

However, they are far from a cure-all to stop police abuse. As the lack of indictment in the Eric Garner case shows, footage of brutal police clashes — no matter how damning — rarely leads to an officer being prosecuted or convicted of a crime.

Even though body cams have proven benefits — reducing police complaints, giving citizens assurance that objective evidence is collected — there’s also the potential for misuse if the police control and handle footage that could be tampered with or used to cherry-pick suspects. another

While Obama’s body camera pledge draws skepticism, there are several other emerging technologies that could make police more accountable for their actions in the field if widely adopted.

Drone Surveillance

Filming police with a handheld camera means witnesses need to be in close range, and could end up getting arrested or have their device confiscated. But drone cameras can be operated at a distance, giving them an advantage over smartphone recording.

One Bay Area man, Daniel Saulmon, uses a drone to film police activity, regularly posting video of police DUI checkpoints and traffic stops to help monitor power abuses, the Los Angeles Times reported. Saulmon said his drone didn’t replace his handheld camera but complemented his filming efforts.

But police also have begun using drones to survey traffic, disaster areas, and active shooter scenarios. But privacy issues have kept them from catching on more widely. The San Jose, CA police department grounded its drone after civilians raised concerns over police surveillance. Police agreed not to operate the drone until guidelines and use policies were established.

Keep Tabs On Police Weapons

Police-involved shootings and use of excessive or lethal force are on the rise in many jurisdictions across the country. Meanwhile, data on police killings is sorely lacking, as local police departments are not required to report incidents. One innovative way to hold law enforcement accountable for violence could be to follow their weapons.

One Silicon Valley startup company, Yardarm Technologies, developed smartgun technology that tracks police firearms and records when they’re discharged. The technology notifies dispatchers when an officer removes his or her weapon from its holster, if it’s fired, the direction of the officer’s shots, and where the gun is located. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Department is one of two agencies testing the Internet and Bluetooth-linked technology.

Another gunshot detection system, ShotSpotter, uses microphones planted across an area to automatically identify gunshots fired outside. Once detected, the system alerts the police department of when and where shots were fired. Police departments using ShotSpotter rely on it to respond to shootings more quickly, but the technology can also be used to verify an officer’s story during a shooting.

The system is completely agnostic and doesn’t distinguish between police and civilian gunfire, ShotSpotter’s CEO Ralph Clark said. “Do we capture officer-involved shootings? We capture shootings. Outdoors and where we’re deployed,” such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, Oakland, Detroit and San Francisco, he said.

“We’ve captured events where bad guys are shooting at each other and those where an officer is involved,” Clark said. “We can’t say who was standing where but that three shots were fired here and returned fire came from here.”

In the company’s 15-year existence, cop-involved shootings have been rare in the almost 90 areas that use ShotSpotter. Having the service throughout the entire city would be cost prohibitive to have it in areas where gun violence is low, “We want to be where the problem is,” Clark said. For example, the service is only used in a small part of Chicago and about one-fifth of Washington, D.C.’s 100-square miles.

Community Cop Watching

Ultimately, much of the power to oversee police behavior lies with the public. Citizen-captured cell phone video footage has been key in documenting violent police encounters in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and elsewhere. In Russia, where police forces are known to be corrupt and violent, citizens have taken the protection of video to an extreme; an estimated one million Russians use private dashboard cameras to record police abuse.

While Americans haven’t gotten to that point yet, numerous apps have hit the market to let users inconspicuously record and stream video or audio of police encounters. One such app, OpenWatch, lets users discretely record audio that is automatically uploaded to a database and scrubbed of personally identifying information, ensuring the footage survives even if the police confiscate or destroy the recording device. On another app, called SWAT (Safety With Accountability And Transparency), video of police encounters is live streamed and stored on the app’s servers. SWAT also automatically files a complaint on your behalf and reports the incident to government agencies.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its New York affiliate each have their own police recording apps, respectively called Police Tape and Stop and Frisk Watch, that record video and audio. The stop-and-frisk app, named for New York Police Department’s now defunct practice of stopping people based on opaque and imprecise criteria, stops recording if the device is shaken and alerts other users when someone in the area is filming police activity.