By: Dylan Reynolds

Amid the flagrant calls for police reform spurred by the 2020 murder of George Floyd (among countless others) is a renewed effort by both advocates and lawmakers to require that police officers wear body cameras. Body cameras are seen as essential to police reform, transparency, and increasing officer accountability. However, it turns out that smartphone cameras can also be an incredibly effective tool for police accountability. 

A common argument by advocates is that body cameras increase police accountability. They think the cameras are frequently worn and the footage is frequently reviewed, forcing officers to change their discriminatory behavior when it is identified. They also think the cameras result in more police prosecutions and more trust between the police and the public. However, we know this is simply not true. In fact, there is a sharp disparity in the effectiveness of body cameras for police accountability in theory versus in practice.  

Today, only seven states require that police wear body cameras [1]. Although this number is small, there has also been widespread voluntary adoption of the cameras, so about 60% of all departments and about 80% of large departments voluntarily use them [2]. However, many police departments permit wide officer discretion about when and even whether to use the cameras and many lack standards for periodically reviewing the collected footage [3]. This begs the question: What good does the camera do for police accountability when the footage is exclusively within police control, such that whether it is ever viewed, used, or released is up to police?

We wanted police departments to frequently review collected footage for policy compliance and to watch what happens in routine cases. What we see, however, is police departments referring to body camera footage only when there is a civilian complaint or a high-profile case [4]. Further, body cameras have produced a negligible effect on officer behavior. There has been no evidence of reduced racial disparities and little increase in officer discipline or police prosecutions because of the cameras, even though these were reasons for mandating them [5].

The appeal and effectiveness of smartphone cameras as an accountability mechanism for police starts with their prevalence. Smartphone cameras only date back about 10 years, but are virtually ubiquitous now, and have resulted in a new kind of public surveillance of police [6]. They have resulted in the widespread ability to instantly record, and our rights enable us to record what the police do in public [7]. Further, smartphones are an effective accountability mechanism because cell phone footage can be shared broadly and frequently goes viral, as seen in the case of George Floyd.  

Darnella Frazier was just seventeen years old when she recorded George Floyd’s murder with her cellphone [8]. She posted the video to Facebook, it went viral, and eventually led to criminal charges and convictions against three police officers [9]. Darnella’s actions were wholly inspiring and courageous. In the face of police threatening her with mace as she and others called on them to stop hurting Floyd and render medical attention, she knew she needed to keep recording [10]. Had it not been for Darnella’s bravery and her cellphone, George Floyd’s murderer would still be a police officer today.

On the other hand, smartphones as an accountability mechanism for police conduct come with civilian risks otherwise absent with body worn cameras. For example, while many individuals have expressed fear of retaliation for sharing videos of police, some individuals have documented active retaliation by police officers [11]. Additionally, police officers frequently attempt to prohibit recording at crime scenes even though we have a First Amendment right to record things happening in public, as long as it does not impede the officer from doing his job safely [12]. Further, police officers may even arrest citizens who record them for “impeding police duties,” just to remove them from the scene [13].

Ultimately, our evolving technology is creating new pathways to public oversight of policing because it transfers the power from police to the public in holding police accountable for their conduct. Although police body cameras sound good in theory, they suffer from inconsistent polices that undermine their effectiveness for increasing officer accountability. Despite the risks mentioned above, we should be using our cell phones to record police scenes, so long as it does not impede the officers from doing their job.

Dylan graduated from Arizona State University with her B.S. and M.A. in Criminology & Criminal Justice. She is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and plans to practice in corporate law after passing the bar exam. Within the social justice sector, her interests include environmental justice, criminal justice reform, and issues pertaining to gender and bodily autonomy. Her personal interests include traveling, snuggling with her cat Freddy, and spending time with loved ones.