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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Zehnder

Body Cameras are not a Failure!Part 5: Premises: Police may use body cameras for self-interest and not in the public interest and often hide video from the public.

This is the fifth in a series of short articles presenting comments and counterpoints to an article in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 2023, titled “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” by Eric Umansky. You can read Part 1 here and follow the links in each article to the subsequent articles.


In the previous parts of this series, I have pointed out numerous times where Mr. Umansky uses the inductive generalization argument about policing nationwide based on purported failures at NYPD. He continues to do so as it pertains to the two premises that are the topics of this article. He further confuses his argument by using the words “may” and “often”. This, again, provides a defensible explanation when his premises are found to be erroneous.


The first premise, that police may use body cameras for self-interest, is based off Mr. Umansky’s belief that police chiefs and sheriffs have too much control over their departments. To quote the article, “In every city, the police ostensibly report to mayors and other elected officials. But in practice, they have been given wide latitude to run their departments as they wish and to police – and protect – themselves”. Take a minute to read that sentence carefully. He believes that a politician with no police experience or training, and with political agendas, is better suited to lead and manage police departments and their operations, than police professionals. Setting aside the argument of local political incompetence that is on a much grander scale than police incompetence and malfeasance, he would have you believe that police leaders around the country are incompetent and can’t be trusted. The premise for his statement has much to do with his belief that police departments do not release video (or “hide” to use his words) because they are trying to protect themselves and their agency from publishing their corruption, incompetence and/or criminality. I suspect Mr. Umansky has a profound lack of understanding about public/open records laws around the country and the basic tenants of judicial processes. Due to his overuse of generalizations, he fails to distinguish all video from video related to officer involved shootings or critical incidents. These are two different classes of video with their own separate arguments for release. I have already discussed the issues surrounding release of these types of video in previous parts so I won’t repeat them here.


Mr. Umansky equates failure to release video in a timely manner or withholding release (regardless if it is in accordance with the law or not) as “hiding”. Again, he brings up several high-profile incidents where he believes departments didn’t meet his standard of timeliness and then extrapolates that (with the conditional words “may” and “often”) to police departments around the country. However, he provides no data to support the statement that the police “often hide video from the public”. Ask the records section personnel of a police agency if they “hide” video and they will surely tell you that they are inundated with public/open records requests for body camera video. And that is just for videos releasable without exemptions allowed by law. Add to that the processing work to review and complete privacy redaction and they will tell you they are understaffed and overwhelmed with “hiding” video.


In the final part of this series, Mr. Umansky and I finally will agree on something. Police departments should do more to use body camera footage to review and improve their agencies.




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