The New York Times published a story late last month explaining that some police unions—such as the one in Worcester, Massachusetts—are demanding higher wages for their officers if they have to wear body cameras. The unions cite the loss of officers’ privacy as the main reason for the pay demands. This claim is overstated, but the unions have some good reason to be wary of how departments will use cameras against their officers. Ultimately, whether or not cities add “accountability pay” to get the union to agree to body cams, the best accountability must come from the policies that govern body camera use.

To begin with, the situation in Worcester suggests a deeper problem within in the department. From the NYT story:

Plagued by allegations that officers planted evidence, stole drug money and coerced sex in prostitution cases, the 450-officer department learned last November that it was facing a federal civil rights investigation like those launched in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., and most recently Memphis.
Elected officials in Worcester had been trying for years to put a body camera program in place, and the police department ran a pilot that ended in 2020. But when the city announced that the program would finally begin in earnest in February, the police unions balked, saying they wanted extra pay for wearing the recording devices.

In a situation like Worcester, with even more misconduct horror stories in the report, the idea of paying officers more to participate in their own accountability might resemble a protection racket to reformers. However, with the right camera policies paired with systemic changes, “accountability pay” could be a bargain for a police department that can be trusted by the communities that desperately need better policing.

Bringing a stick to go with the carrot

As it stands, the vast majority of the largest police departments have already adopted body cameras. Some unions successfully bargained for more money in their contract negotiations that also brought cameras into use.

While reform-minded policymakers may be against the accountability pay unions demand to wear body cams, perhaps they should use such opportunities to put teeth in the accountability mechanisms that come along with the hardware. For example, any use of force not captured on a body camera could result in swift disciplinary action—in the mold of the “swift, certain, and fair” model of supervision—with graduated sanctions, ultimately leading to termination for multiple infractions. Additionally, officers who intentionally turn off their camera during searches or antagonistic citizen encounters should receive harsher penalties. The absence of body cam footage in such instances should also be held against the officer in case of official complaint or civil suit, because the officer failed to provide the best evidence for their conduct.

These are popular, commonsense changes the cities negotiating with the unions should put forward. City officials should make these red line demands known to the public as they enter contract talks. As the Hollywood film studios have found out the hard way, public perception is a crucial part of labor negotiations.

Privacy isn’t really an issue, but internal enforcement is

As a matter of what cops do on the clock and interacting with the public, a privacy claim just doesn’t hold water. What a citizen says and does in public is not private, so it follows that what a cop says and does while on the clock and interacting with the public is likewise not private. Just as private sector employees can have their work emails and employer-issued computers monitored, cops have their government-issued devices and government emails subject to inquiry. Barring certain confidential conversations with management or HR, what an employee—police officer or not—says and does at work is not private in any rights-bearing sense of the word.

That said, anecdotal evidence here in Washington, D.C. suggests that body cam footage has been used to discipline officers for unimportant violations. Aligning with stories I’ve heard before, an MPD officer recently told me about a colleague who had been docked five days for swearing on camera when driving into a pothole responding to a call for service. Officers should be disciplined for using abusive language toward members of the public or their colleagues, but losing work or paid vacation days for swearing while driving is overkill. The purpose of police disciplinary actions—like the law itself—is to protect the public, not to enforce rules for the sake of enforcing them.

It is a sad irony that officers too are subject to arbitrary and capricious enforcement of low-level transgressions while those who commit gross misconduct—including criminal offenses—get slaps on the wrist. Perhaps officers and reform advocates have more in common than they think.

Tools are only as good as the policies that govern them

Whether or not cities offer more pay with their body cams, the cameras cannot by themselves bring accountability. The rules and laws governing their use must bring transparency in times of crisis—like disputed uses of force—and officers must be held accountable for turning cams off to hide misconduct.

It is important to stress that while body cameras can provide evidence for police misconduct, they also reveal the difficult circumstances in which officers legitimately use lethal force. With activists who assume every police killing is unjustified, having video evidence of police reacting properly can lower the temperature when people start claiming murder.

Particularly with the advent of cameras that activate when an officer draws their duty weapon, cameras can also help improve officer behavior. Because this camera system can alert supervisors to how often an officer draws their weapon without firing it, they can be incorporated into the early intervention systems departments already use to identify and re-train early-career officers who inappropriately escalate encounters with citizens. This can also alert the brass to veteran officers who are burned out and may need a transfer or pulled off the street entirely.

Presumably, the police unions will fight any plan to increase discipline for non-compliance, but that should be the cost of their “accountability pay” demands. To be clear, this is a separate issue than whether police officers should be paid more generally, given recent bouts of inflation and preexisting staffing problems in many departments. Rather, insofar as some unions think their members need to be paid more to be held accountable, then policymakers must make sure those officers are, in fact, held accountable. At the same time, police departments should use camera footage to curtail abusive officer behavior toward the public and their colleagues, not fleeting expletives caught on camera.

Each department must handle its labor negotiations and body cam policy individually. The best way forward must include strong accountability measures for officers who break rules that protect the public and also increase transparency for officer conduct, good and bad.