The Obama administration recently announced a plan to give $263 million to local law enforcement,which is somewhat concerning considering how this intrusion of the federal government may affect local governments. There may be a silver lining in this plan as $75 million will go to providing officers with body cameras. This is interesting to say the least as many people have been calling for this move to make the police more accountable. Yet while body cameras may prove to be a good tool to keep the police accountable, what the rest of this money will go to is not quite clear.

Immediately you’d see that amount, $75 million, and think that it’s a lot of money being allocated for body cameras. In reality, that money will only go to fund 50,000 body cams, which translates to about $1500 per camera. A quick Google search finds that even the most expensive law enforcement grade cameras are only about $700. This begs the question, where is the rest of this money going? Perhaps I am missing out on some of the nuances of body cameras (I doubt I’m missing out on $800 worth of them) or perhaps, as one Tumblr user joked, “the rest of the money will go to the guy paid to erase the footage.”

What if body cameras are just a feel good measure that won’t curtail police brutality? Many people have pointed out that Rodney King, Oscar Grant, and Eric Garner’s attacks were all caught on tape. Similarly, in my own county in West Virginia, the sheriff was recorded savagely beating a man. (While the sheriff did eventually get convicted and is now serving time in prison, the fact that he was on camera did nothing to prevent his brutality.) This pessimism may be unwarranted and there is a possibility that body cameras will have a panopticonic effect on law enforcement agents across the country.

One opposition to body cameras I had yet to hear came from Tumblr user eltigrechico in which he considers the problems with giving the government the (guise) of the definitive account of any incident. Without taking too many logical leaps, there is a supposition that it would not be too difficult or out of character with law enforcement agencies to edit, withhold or even lose footage. While these are more of procedural concerns, the most interesting concern he voices is:

“If Obama had announced he was going to put 50,000 closed circuit TV cameras all around the U.S., especially in low income neighborhoods, we would all be shocked and outraged. But give those cameras a badge, a gun, and the ability to go mobile, and we all cheer?”

In previous discussions about body cameras I had been all for them. It wasn’t until I saw this analogy to CCTV cameras that I realized this idea may not be the best for curbing police brutality. Nor had I considered that the added surveillance would actually turn out to be a bad thing. I think the big reason for this is that most people think of police brutality incidents as being the only context for body cameras. Think beyond this though, and the realization is quite disconcerting.

To be incredibly pessimistic, think of the California Highway Patrol nude photo scandal, except now the officers don’t even need to seize property to achieve a similar voyeuristic effect. While the idea of oversight and accountability for the police is popular among just about everybody, are body cameras the right way to go? Are the few instances that a body camera would capture misconduct worth the loss of personal privacy and potential new avenues of abuse? Does the fact that there have been police brutality incidents caught on tape indicate that being filmed will even serve as a deterrent from further abuse?

While the issuance of body cameras is a step in the right direction, the allocation of federal funds to provide body cameras to only a small fraction of law enforcement agents is categorically bad. If there is current data on police forces currently using body cameras and their effect on complaints against the police, my omission of such information is not intentional: it is a lack of the accessibility of such information to me. It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on curbing use of force complaints. or if it will do nothing at all.

This was originally written by Students For Liberty blog team member Nick Coughlin.