Home > #OWS, data science, journalism, statistics > Video cameras won’t solve the #EricGarner situation, but they will help

Video cameras won’t solve the #EricGarner situation, but they will help

December 10, 2014

As many thoughtful people have pointed out already, Eric Garner’s case proves that video evidence is not a magic bullet to combat and punish undue police brutality. The Grand Jury deemed such evidence insufficient for an indictment, even if the average person watching the video cannot understand that point of view.

Even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss video cameras on police as entirely a bad idea. We shouldn’t assume no progress could be made simply because there’s an example which lets us down. I am no data evangelist, but neither am I someone who dismisses data. It can be powerful and we should use its power when we can.

And before I try to make the general case for video cameras on cops, let me make one other point. The Eric Garner video has already made progress in one arena, namely public opinion. Without the video, we wouldn’t be seeing nationwide marches protesting the outrageous police conduct.

A few of my data nerd thoughts:

  1. If cops were required to wear cameras, we’d have more data. We should think of that as building evidence, with the potential to use it to sway grand juries, criminal juries, judges, or public opinion.
  2. One thing I said time after time to my students this summer at the data journalism program I directed is the following: a number by itself is usually meaningless. What we need is to compare that number to a baseline. The baseline could be the average number for a population, or the median, or some range of 5th to 95th percentiles, or how it’s changed over time, or whatnot. But in order to gauge any baseline you need data.
  3. So in the case of police videotapes, we’d need to see how cops usually handle a situation, or how cops from other precincts handle similar situations, or the extremes of procedures in such situations, or how police have changed their procedures over time. And if we think the entire approach is heavy handed, we can also compare the data to the police manual, or to other countries, or what have you. More data is better for understanding aggregate approaches, and aggregate understanding makes it easier to fit a given situation into context.
  4. Finally, the cameras might also change their behavior when they are policing, knowing they are being taped. That’s believable but we shouldn’t depend on it.
  5. And also, we have to be super careful about how we use video evidence, and make sure it isn’t incredibly biased due to careful and unfair selectivity by the police. So, some cops are getting in trouble for turning off their cameras at critical moments, or not turning them on ever.

Let’s take a step back and think about how large-scale data collection and mining works, for example in online advertising. A marketer collects a bunch of data. And knowing a lot about one person doesn’t necessarily help them, but if they know a lot about most people, it statistically speaking does help them sell stuff. A given person might not be in the mood to buy, or might be broke, but if you dangle desirable good in front of a whole slew of people, you make sales. It’s a statistical play which, generally speaking, works.

In this case, we are the marketer, and the police are the customers. We want a lot of information about how they do their job so when the time comes we have some sense of “normal police behavior” and something to compare a given incident to or a given cop to. We want to see how they do or don’t try to negotiate peace, and with whom. We want to see the many examples of good and great policing as well as the few examples of terrible, escalating policing.

Taking another step back, if the above analogy seems weird, there’s a reason for that. In general data is being collected on the powerless, on the consumers, on the citizens, or the job applicants, and we should be pushing for more and better data to be collected instead on the powerful, on the police, on the corporations, and on the politicians. There’s a reason there is a burgeoning privacy industry for rich and powerful people.

For example, we want to know how many people have been killed by the police, but even a statistic that important is incredibly hard to come by (see this and this for more on that issue). However, it’s never been easier for the police to collect data on us and act on suspicions of troublemakers, however that is defined.

Another example – possibly the most extreme example of all – comes this very week from the reports on the CIA and torture. That is data and evidence we should have gotten much earlier, and as the New York Times demands, we should be able to watch videos of waterboarding and decide for ourselves whether it constitutes torture.

So yes, let’s have video cameras on every cop. It is not a panacea, and we should not expect it to solve our problems over night. In fact video evidence, by itself, will not solve any problem. We should think it as a mere evidence collecting device, and use it in the public discussion of how the most powerful among us treat the least powerful. But more evidence is better.

Finally, there’s the very real question of who will have access to the video footage, and whether the public will be allowed to see it at all. It’s a tough question, which will take a while to sort out (FOIL requests!), but until then, everyone should know that it is perfectly legal to videotape police in every place in this country. So go ahead and make a video with your camera when you suspect weird behavior.


  1. Gordon
    December 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Why are we the marketers, and the police customers? We are paying the police, and they are providing a service for us: that makes us either customers or employers.

    I seem to end up on the other side of every social and economic argument that you present here, so I won’t be surprised if you have a radically different take on the need for filming police to mine. As a customer and an employer of the police, I’d like some qualitative data about how they are doing their job, and cameras will provide some of that.

    Beyond that, though, the fact that Eric Garner was killed because he committed the crime of selling cigarettes is emblematic of a society that legislates too much. US federal law apparently contains 3,000 defined criminal acts, the majority of which are found outside the FCC. Given that there’s no easy way for anyone to ascertain its scope, you might expect a lot of people to inadvertently break the law: how many high school kids sell individual cigarettes to their buddies? How many might reasonably expect to be arrested by the police for that?

    So you live in an ill-defined, amorphous web of legal strictures, and there is an armed body of agents charged with their enforcement, and from time to time, they apparently kill people in the pursuit of that end. How the FUCK can you NOT put cameras on your employees under those circumstances????


    • Auros
      December 12, 2014 at 2:18 am

      I think “we’re both the customer and the employer” is actually a great frame through which to view this. Employers collect statistics on employees’ interactions with customers constantly. Think about how whenever you dial into a call center, you hear, either in a recording before you’re connected, or directly form the person who talks to you, that the call may be recorded for quality purposes.

      That’s what we want for cops — we want their interactions with the public recorded, to ensure the quality of those interactions.


  2. ionf
    December 10, 2014 at 11:27 am

    How slippery is the slope from requiring police to wear camerae to requiring everyone to wear them? If doesn’t seem very slippery, but that’s a possible unintended consequence about which I’ve just started thinking


  3. December 10, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Not sure that giving more data to Big Brother is such a super idea. You seem to acknowledge that here. When you note that “Who has access?” and “Will it be used selectively?” are tough questions, you’re essentially conceding the entire case of video camera opponents.


  4. Min
    December 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    This is an area in which we already have a good bit of data. Some of it comes from police on patrol wearing cameras, and a lot comes from police dashboard cameras. As I understand it, it is pretty clear that such cameras affect both the behavior of the police and of the citizens being filmed (if they know that they are), for the better. 🙂


  5. Gary
    December 10, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    One of your points struck me because I didn’t know the answer to it: did the police know they were being videotaped in this tragedy?? One thing I read about the Rialto experiment indicates that when police know they are being videotaped, their behavior changes for the better


  6. sufferingsuccatash
    December 10, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    We need to install video cameras on the Wall St. bankers as well.


    • December 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm

      Actually already happening for traders.


    • December 11, 2014 at 2:56 am

      There are three levels of bad acts in financial markets: individual, institutional, and systemic. Most of the sound and fury in regulation and compliance is directed toward the individual level, I guess because it is easier to catch, easier to convict, and satisfies our sense of punishment that we get to see the face of the crook. This is also the level where additional data and Big Data tools are helpful.

      For the most part, though, what we should really be worried about are the two higher levels of wrongdoing/error. In Gladwell’s best piece every (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/01/08/open-secrets-3) he nicely describes how two levels aren’t better served by more data. In fact, it can make those more difficult.
      It is also a case where the broken window theory is completely wrong: the macro bad-acts of the financial crisis were not the accumulated result of many micro bad acts (which did also exist), but something special that arose at the aggregate level.

      In short, I don’t believe additional scrutiny of individual traders makes much sense (direct cost/benefit) and is, I think, a distraction from the real issues. In the worst case, success on the micro area can make us overly confident about the higher level dangers.


  7. Keating Willcox
    December 11, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    Most of the problems we have seen come from poor training of police to deal with physically and mentally ill folks. The police officers in Ferguson should have had training and equipment to do a non-lethal arrest of a crazy, angry criminal. In new York, the police should have had a quick response to the breathing and cardiac problems of their perp. Our local police are far better trained and equipped so problems like these are rare, and the police are far more professional. It is a treat to live in a community with well trained police, especially if there are folks with mental problems who have to be arrested. Race has much less to do with this than skill.


  8. Auros
    December 12, 2014 at 2:34 am

    I had an internship that, let’s just say, exposed me to some of the possibilities of surveillance when I was a teenager. (Think about where a kid inclined to math and computer science, living west of Baltimore, might get recruited.) And then I read David Brin’s The Transparent Society back in, maybe ’98?

    The whole “who will watch the watchers” thing has been buzzing around my head for as long as I’ve had any political consciousness at all. I’ve found it terribly disappointing that virtually nobody in the political world has any interest in bringing accountability to the police and the intel community, even as the tools that folks with money and power can use to watch the rest of us have proliferated. It took the spooks spying on Congress, to get the Congresscritters shaken up enough to even smack them on the wrist.

    I’m by no means as extreme in my thinking as some of the folks who want to abolish the whole set of intel agencies. I believe that they really do some intel work that’s valuable, that saves lives, and I can even describe a system like the Panopticon that the NSA wants that could be valuable (if you’ve seen The Wire, imagine how a tool that lets you tap past calls and messages would change the process of tracking a drug ring), but also quite difficult to abuse. (Multiple layers of encryption, keys broken into XORable pieces and distributed to officials in different parts of the country who don’t even know each others identities, different keyholders having authority over various subcollections of data and indexes, and, most importantly, a warrant process to limit what queries can be submitted that follows the same kinds of rules we had for regular wiretaps throughout the 20th century.) Sadly, our elected leaders clearly lack the political will to demand that they build anything like that. Many of them seem to be too lazy or stupid to even sit down and try to understand the technology, so they buy the line that either we let the intel folks run wild, or we sacrifice the tools that could Keep The Homeland Safe. 😛


  9. Grwww
    December 12, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    So ultimately, how much of a criminal do you have to be, before you can be treated as a criminal? When people are behaving according to the law, are they treated with more respect by strangers or less? When someone looks like they are “low income” or “poor” or “destitute”, does everyone just feel sorry for them, or do we mostly think, “I wonder if they are in enough desperation to commit a crime against me?”

    Human nature is to “survive”, because we are animals who have been doing that for, well, millennia. We recognize survival instinct and actions in others pretty well. We and sense when something is getting tense or elevated in conversation and action.

    Police officers carry weapons that are dangerous. They owe the public at large, safety in addition to their desire to be safe themselves. So, practically, for me, there is not much room for “casual” behavior around situations where any threat is felt or detected toward a police officer or the public. The weapon they have needs to stay in their possession and doing anything it takes to make that happen is commonly justified in our legal system. Any attempt to draw lines leads to “attempts” to get next to that line without crossing. Holding people to the “fire” about good behavior tends to work.

    My parents did say to me, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” This helped me decide that there are moments when emotions don’t count. It doesn’t matter how much you “feel” about something, you need to stop, think and act responsibly.

    If you want to push your luck in circumstances where police officers are acting officially, by acting “innocent until proven guilty (with an attitude is not adding anything positive)”, or perhaps yelling and screaming or “jerking around” trying to free your self from their grasp, you will definitely find that you are going to get hurt. You have crossed the “resisting” arrest line, and can be treated as a criminal, plain and simple.

    Should police abuse their power, no. Should police kill people in the process of apprehension or other acts associated with managing a situation that is not proven as criminal? I’d say a big no. But, in many cases, there is little time for judgement, and young or inexperience officers are going to be in situations which require quick judgement. If their training and mental stress testing has not justified their ability to be in such situations, that’s the bigger issue.

    But also, citizens of any location where “police” are present, need to be ready to take on their own responsibility to stay out of situations where their own actions could put them into a dangerous situation. Acting stupidly is different from being ignorant. Police are going to be ignorant of your intentions and can’t predict the future. If you step into a scene and make their ignorance become concern or even survival, human instinct and their training and experience are all going to be part of what drives their response to your actions. If they have a gun, how stupid do you feel it would be, to make them feel insecure?

    I think it’s vital for people to not be so naive as to believe that you can exercise “any right” that you have in life during the time that you are involved with the police enforcing the law. Get over the idea that since you are innocent, you don’t have to worry. Since no one knows your next action(s), except you, you can count on police being defensive and exercising as much force as necessary to keep the public, and themselves safe.


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