Some day in the future—hopefully after I am long dead—everyone will have body cameras implanted directly into their persons. Everyone will have an indisputable record of everything they do, all the time.
If you want to ponder the implications of that world, look no further than Black Mirror, a brilliant British television drama that imagines what our tech-dependent life might look like in the future—and inevitably, it doesn’t look nice. The episode “The Entire History of You” depicts a world where everyone has implanted body cameras that let you replay and re-examine every moment of your life. I won’t spoil the plot here, but you’ll be so unsettled by the end of the episode that you’ll want either to pour yourself a stiff drink or to scrub yourself clean in the shower.
Why? Because as much as we all talk about personal body cameras as a powerful technology to prevent cover-ups of misconduct, they are also a dangerous technology that undermines ethical conduct.
Which brings us to Baltimore, police brutality, and some very hard choices we as a society need to confront.
Black Americans are right to say that police treat them unfairly too often; sometimes with deadly consequences, as witnessed by the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody, other times with consequences that are demeaning, humiliating, or just plain annoying. At the same time, police unions are right to say that most of us cannot imagine how perilous their job is. They live in a state of constant risk assessment, hyper-vigilant for deadly threat at every moment, even when most moments are pretty routine.
Body cameras seem like a simple tool to address the frustrations of both groups. The cameras are inexpensive and easy to install. They provide an incontrovertible record of encounters with law enforcement. The data is easy to interpret. We’re all compliance professionals here, so let’s use our own industry terminology: body cameras are a monitoring control. We would be able to install an ideal monitoring control on the “workforce” otherwise known as people. If I offered you an effective monitoring control for your own employees in the abstract, you’d be asking where you could buy it.
Putting body cameras on every police officer in the country, however, is anything but abstract. In that real world context, the idea doesn’t sit quite right any more, and I think this is why: in a world where everything is monitored, you need to trust others less often. Nobody in the business of ethics should feel comfortable with that.
Let’s stay abstract for another moment. If you implement a control to prevent some risk from happening, the employee no longer needs to worry about the risk. He assumes the control prevents the risk. He no longer needs to assess his own exposure to the risk, or to adjust his process to avoid the risk. He puts his faith in the control.
You can see that principle at work in, of all places, the National Football League and its problems with concussions. The NFL required a control (the helmet), so the employee (the player) no longer needs to worry about the risk (a head injury). He believes he no longer needs to assess his own exposure to the risk, or to adjust his process (tackling another player) to avoid it. He puts his faith in the helmet. Which is why you see similar rough sports that don’t use helmets, like rugby, with lower rates of head injury—because players are forced to assume the risk themselves, and adjust their play accordingly.
Now let’s apply that principle to body cameras. Will they make police more attentive to treating black citizens with more respect? Yes. Will they make people less likely to file false claims of police brutality? Yes. We’ve already seen both outcomes in places where body cameras have been adopted. If you simply want to achieve better outcomes—which is what compliance officers talk about all the time these days—body cameras will do that.
But remember, the “risk” here is mistrust and miscommunication between police and public. If body cameras are the control, do you really want a world where police and public need to trust each other less? Do you want a world where someone can pass judgment more quickly based on a video record, and more people can pass judgment more quickly? The motives for police will be less about “I want this person to work with me” and more about “I don’t want to get fired.” The motives for the public will be less about “I want this officer to serve and protect me” and more about “let’s see whether this officer violates my rights.” That’s not a good place for us to be.
I have no illusions that the ideal solution—getting police and black citizens to trust each other more—is incredibly difficult. But in so many other situations, ethics and compliance officers say the ideal solution to a problem is to improve “the process.” Using a technology solution, they say, is imperfect because you solve only one part of the problem, and usually create another one. They are right.
Well, better relations between minorities and police is a process too, and right now it isn’t a very good one. Body cameras would help to solve the problem—and that is a sad statement, because it means we cannot yet solve our problems ourselves.
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