ONE AFTER another, allegations of police assaults on unarmed citizens — mostly black males — keep making news. But the seeming surge in incidents has nothing to do with a sudden increase in police violence and everything to do with the fact that millions of ordinary citizens are pointing cellphones at police to capture their every move.
The proliferation of cellphone videos has prompted a nationwide call for police to wear body cameras. President Obama proposed spending $75 million to outfit departments with the equipment. Politicians seem ready to accept this as a fast solution.
But riots like those in Baltimore are symptoms of much larger societal problems. The ugly flashpoints of violence are fueled by deep-seated inequalities in many American cities.
Not long ago, it was rare for a bystander to pull out a camera and point it at police in action. In 2010, a particularly violent arrest at Roxbury Community College that was captured on video caused a stir. It showed Boston police officers wrestling a 16-year-old black teen to the ground — until they demanded the witness stop recording. The video itself, and the officers’ reaction to the recording, became a major part of the story.
Today, the practice of filming police in action is generally accepted. It seems inevitable that virtually everyone will have cameras clipped to their clothing, or worn like jewelry, capturing a constant stream of video. The technology already exists. Soon, we’ll all assume that every waking moment is being recorded and uploaded to some social media outlet.
In Russia, the process of becoming a wall-to-wall video nation has already begun. According to Wired magazine, most cars there have dash-mounted cameras. It’s why so many people were able to randomly capture the meteor that hit the city of Chelyabinsk in 2013.
Russians use dashboard cameras to prevent anything from bogus traffic accidents for insurance claims, to corrupt law enforcement. But they also turn everything else in people’s daily lives into a potential public display. It’s a trade-off most people apparently accept.
In that regard, it seems the United States and Russia aren’t so different. Even with tens of millions of surveillance cameras pointed at Americans every day, strong public support for such snooping persists.
But government-issued body cameras pose different issues than citizens capturing police actions with cellphones or dashboard cameras. For one thing, it’s not clear that the footage would be available to the public — 16 states already are considering laws that would limit access to such video. Beyond that, the plan to buy cameras for police uses a top-down model of procurement in an era of smarter, crowd-sourced aggregation.
By the time some 1.1. million police officers nationwide are outfitted with body cameras — and a huge amount of money is spent to store, archive, and access the footage — the technology could be obsolete.
Those dollars could be used instead on schools, housing, and job training to help fix the underlying problems that foment the outrage we’ve seen in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
Monday night in Baltimore, rioters cut holes in hoses while firefighters tried to save a burning CVS. A neighbor watching the flames rage told a reporter this kind of mayhem could happen in any American city today. It’s going to take a lot more than body cameras to restore peace, justice, and trust.
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.