Why we can’t solve a human public safety issue with a technological quick-fix: The knee-jerk jump to security cameras and other gadgets from Sandy Hook to Ferguson, New York to Cleveland

Posted by on January 5, 2015

“Call our financial advisor and move all of our investment money into body camera manufacturers,” I recently told my wife. My comment was made tongue-in-cheek in reflection of the pathetic state of our public policy reaction to a public safety crisis, rather than as a passing joke or disrespectful and glib response to one of most tense times for American policing.

Protestors have filled the streets of a number of our nation’s cities in recent weeks in protest of police-involved deaths of citizens in their communities. Streets and highways have been blocked, buildings burned, police cars overturned, sit-ins held, and walkouts staged. Political and media pundits have reflected on and debated what many in our communities believe to be the obvious: The unresolved tensions of race and police-community relations in many of our nation’s communities.

Yet there was one point of widespread agreement: Putting body cameras on our nation’s police will greatly reduce complaints of police excessive force and improve citizen behavior toward police.


Devil is in the detail of implementation of any safety strategy

Well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s not O.K.  And the reason it is not O.K. is because my 30+ years of experience in the school security field taught me that the devil of any proposed public policy or program is in the details of its implementation.

More than two years ago, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, sent federal, state and local education and public safety officials scrambling to “do something, do anything and do it fast.” Having bungled school safety policy and funding at the federal and state levels, the best our “leaders” have been able to do has largely been to throw some one-time grants for physical security equipment to schools and put out press releases touting that they have done something for school safety.

This all sounds great — until you take a closer look at how things really work. Once they get past the “Wow!” factor of a few dozen new cameras in their local high school, most people are stunned to find out that many of these schools and school districts have no budget set aside for the repair and/or replacement of these cameras once they are damaged or have technical malfunctions.

The result: A facade of enhanced security around the reality of numerous out-of-service cameras and/or monitors hanging up in schools across the nation. Let’s also not forget the accompanying false sense of security in the school-community that will come back to bite those who made knee-jerk reactions in an oversimplified response to a complex human public safety problem.

Body cameras, officers? Anyone? Everyone? 

The Sandy Hook hysteria has not even settled and we are now heading into the policy body camera frenzy. Cities are already preparing to spend millions to outfit their officers with body cameras. Chances are good few of these officials have faced the probability that it won’t be long after the cameras are issued that some will malfunction, others will be damaged during struggles with violent offenders, and believe it or not, there may be an officer here or there who might even intentionally turn them off.

It is also reasonable to expect that cameras may be put on officers before related formal policies and procedures are thoroughly thought through, adopted and communicated to officers.  There are a number of unique issues to address, too, such as how police body cameras may conflict with juvenile privacy, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) information-sharing restrictions, and related aspects of how School Resource Officers (SROs) issued these cameras will interact with children in schools each day.  And of course, chances are good that local police departments will not be given the budgetary resources to repair and replace body cameras any more than principals are given the budgets to repair and replace the one-time infusion of surveillance cameras dropped in their school buildings after a high-profile crisis.

But hey, those are just details. For now, we can all feel good knowing that our leaders have once again thrown money and equipment at what is really another human public safety issue.

Come back in a year, though, and we can talk about the actual human problems that triggered these expenditures in the first place. Don’t worry. The problems will still be here.

Ken Trump

National School Safety and Security Services

Experts You Can Trust! 

Visit School Security Blog at: www.schoolsecurity.org/blog

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3 thoughts on “Why we can’t solve a human public safety issue with a technological quick-fix: The knee-jerk jump to security cameras and other gadgets from Sandy Hook to Ferguson, New York to Cleveland

  1. John Henderson says:

    In my experience, camera installations are only useful in protection situations if they are live-monitored. In other words, people have to be scheduled to watch the monitors continuously while the facility is in use. If the monitors are not watched, the cameras will record all kinds of data, but no response will occur because no one saw anything happen. Cameras that are not monitored are only good for investigation after the incident has unfolded and do not offer any protective or live response value. I think this point is lost on administrators that want to make a splash by quickly installing cameras as a safety measure. They also must purchase camera systems as part of an ongoing contract that includes maintenance and even upgrading if cameras are deemed ideal by a qualified and experienced security consultant. The use of any camera system must be accompanied by a set of policies and procedures that should be respectful of privacy concerns and legislation as you do not want your new system to become more of a liability than a useful tool.

  2. Mark says:

    Well said Ken! As a forty year career law enforcement officer, we are now hearing the Broken Windows Theory is indeed “broken;” so much to be said for the millions of dollars spent on community policing, get tough on crime policies and other initiatives offered by the state and federal governments as a means to show “we are here to help you.”

    The age old “Us vs. Them” mentality is alive and well and more technological gadgets like body cameras will not fix that. In fact, I just read a story where an officer trying to “protect himself” by recording events while on duty has resulted in his termination, cases being dismissed and citizens being notified they were recorded without their permission. I can’t wait to see how policy evolves.

    The Greeks believed you could not predict the future but you could change the future if you learned from the past. Sadly for many, you have been there and chose to do little if anything to make a difference. Police officers are use to applying band-aids as a “quick fix” – next band-aid please!

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, Mark.

      One of the best examples of community policing and building relationships between youth and police is a professional school-based policing program. You should be proud of all of the accomplishments in your department that have advanced that concept in Cherokee County!

      Happy New Year!

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