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Smile, You’re on Candid Camera

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
July 10, 2015

News stories and commentaries are filled these days with discussions of cameras on cops…the advantages, the disadvantages, the privacy issues, the data management issues, and, of course, the performance accountability issues. Opinions are divided on cop cams, even in the law enforcement field. Some police departments already have implemented video cameras on police cars and as a part of patrol officers’ uniforms. “Body-worn camera technology is a win-win for both the officer and the community,” San Diego Deputy Police Chief David Ramirez reported in a March 18, 2015, Los Angeles Times article.

Some writers have focused on the effect of videotaping on police performance. They argue that when officers know they are being taped they are more likely to follow rules, procedures and laws. Others argue that while taping may improve accountability and thus police performance, it also makes police more risk-averse, unwilling to take assertive actions for fear that they may overstep some recognized boundaries, and less willing to exercise appropriate discretion.

In addition, there is the issue of privacy. San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, a strong supporter of body cameras, is reluctant to release videos, in part because victims, bystanders and even perpetrators shown on the videos have privacy rights. Finding ways to redact videos and provide them to the public is a perplexing problem, yet taping incidents without having the responsibility to release them means videotaping is meaningless.

Because videotaping can violate privacy, it undermines relationships. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote,

“Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other, you cut each other some slack, you share fierce common loyalties…Cameras undermine communal bonds.”

The discussion of videotaping has focused on law enforcement. What might be the impact of videotaping in other workplaces, whether in standard office settings or the street or client situations?

While most public employees and managers do not have the authority to use deadly force, one might argue that there is no comparison between cop cams and video cameras in other work settings. But suppose every client or citizen contact was videotaped (just as many of our phone calls to private organizations currently may be audio taped “for quality control purposes”). If employees and supervisors knew their behaviors were being taped, would their performance change?

Would employees waste less time and be more productive or would they find more sophisticated ways to mask any non-job activity?  Would supervisors use different language when assessing performance or carrying out discipline? Would they be embarrassed—or worse—if caught on “candid camera?”

We already know that public employees and administrators, as a rule, are risk-averse. Will organizations (and individuals) become even more defensive, protective and even isolated if videotaping means that daily behaviors and decisions are subject to public scrutiny?  How might an organization manage video surveillance in an open, shared-workspace environment?

The arguments for transparency and accountability are strong and well reasoned. As citizens, we want our governments to operate in the sunshine. We want decisions to be made openly, and we want to know the influences that determine decisions. We want to know that tax dollars – the public’s money – are being used wisely and well. Privacy is often an unacknowledged factor in discussions of transparency, accountability and organizational performance measurement. Videotaping may make the organization more accountable and more responsive because it precludes privacy. It may also build suspicion and distrust within the organization. “Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you.”

As managers we want to protect our employees’ ability to explore options and alternatives in a safe environment. Cameras undermine this safety. Will employees become less willing to engage in creative responses if there is no “zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment.”

Brooks concludes his column with,

“Cop-cams strike a blow for truth, but they strike a blow against relationships. Society will be more open and transparent, but less humane and trusting.”

The same argument can be made for audiotaping, videotaping, or any other technology that allows for more accountability and performance management but at the same time creates an environment of distrust and disregard for the importance of the individual in everyday organizational outcomes. This is the challenge for public leaders – to find ways to maintain or increase accountability while at the same time ensuring employees’ confidentiality, creativity and confidence.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who currently lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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