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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Zehnder

Body Cameras Are Not A Failure!

Article #1

I am compelled to comment on a recent article in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 2023, titled “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” by Eric Umansky. You can find the article here, though it requires a subscription to read it in its entirety. It is also published on the site as “How Police Have Undermined the Promise of Body Cameras”. You can find the same article for free here. In my opinion, this is a piece of journalism filled with misleading and/or erroneous information which deserves to be addressed and I’d like to offer counterpoints.

 Two caveats:

1.     I will not address any of the specific incidents Mr. Umansky writes about involving NYPD or the other agencies highlighted in the article. I don’t have the access to the facts from both sides and I don’t want to present my opinions as facts.

2.     It takes 30+ minutes to read the article. I value your time and patience, so I plan to break down my comments in a series of short articles.

 I’d like to begin with the article titles: “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” and “How Police Have Undermined the Promise of Body Cameras”. These are misleading statements to the casual citizen reader. The titles are presented as factual. After reading the entire article, which focuses almost exclusively on the NYPD, perhaps more appropriate titles, from Mr. Umansky’s perspective, should have been “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras at NYPD” and “How the NYPD has Undermined the Promise of Body Cameras”.  I’m not supporting these propositions, again because I don’t have all the facts, but those revised titles would certainly make more sense since the articles center around NYPD and its purported failure to release video after officer involved shootings. Mr. Umansky would have the reader believe, by both titles, that the purported failings at NYPD, and the few other agencies listed, are failings of police departments nationwide which simply isn’t accurate. He fails to present all the required information to support that position and for the reader to come to that conclusion.

 In the study of logic, there is the concept of inductive generalization. Inductive generalization is an argument that draws a conclusion about all members of a group (in this case police nationally) from evidence that pertains to a selected sample (in this case NYPD). The more commonly used term for this is “hasty generalization”.  There is also the argumentative fallacy of suppressed evidence. This is exactly what it sounds like, ignoring evidence that would undermine a specific position, in this case anything that would detract from the premises in the article. Mr. Umansky is also very liberal in his use of qualifying words. Qualifiers are great when you can’t factually support a hasty generalization. They are also a great way to avoid being accused of suppressing points of view counter to your positions.

 According to Mr Umansky, police departments (qualifiers in italics):

  • have failed to provide transparency because many agencies across the country have not released video to the public in the immediate aftermath of officer involved shootings.

  • have too much control over the video, who sees it and when they see it.

  • have frequently failed to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse.

  • have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating police misconduct.

  • may use body cameras for self-interest and not in the interest of the public.

  • often hide video from the public.

  • don’t use body camera footage to improve their review or improve performance.

 All these premises will be the subject of future articles. In the meantime, I’m sure many of you who have read both Mr. Umansky's article, and this one, will add your comments. I’m under no illusion that this article will reach the number of readers that Mr. Umansky’s article has. I simply want to encourage constructive debate and provide readers with counterpoints to the article’s hasty generalizations and suppressed evidence.

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