By Daniel Udell
On February 19, Rollins College hosted a competitive debate against the esteemed University of Miami debate team. The subject of debate was whether or not American police should be mandated to wear body cameras by the federal government in response to civil and human rights violations involving American police and citizens. Although the problem isn’t new, the increased ubiquity of social media and videophones has made public documentation of these scenarios more and more prevalent, elevating it as a hot topic of discussion even for those disinterested in traditional politics these past few years. The event had a full turnout with an energetic, if not pleasantly rowdy, audience. Rollins was assigned the opposition position and University of Miami the affirmative position, referred to as the “government’s” position, as it is the federal government who is looking into this course of action as a means of fostering accountability in both police and civilian communities.
University of Miami was selected to begin the debate, offering an introduction to the subject and arguing for the body cam mandate. The “government” cited the recent events of Ferguson as a particularly glaring incident that might have been avoided had Darren Wilson been wearing a body camera, as the objective evidence of the recording would have either quickly verified his claims or absolutely refuted them. Much of the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death revolved around conflicting reports of eyewitnesses of the scene and Wilson’s own personal testimony. The visiting debate team argued that this ultimately could have been avoided, and can be avoided in the future, by mandating body cameras for police. Furthermore, the government position argued that body cameras would protect both police and civilians, as police could cite recordings if they were ever falsely accused of misconduct, and likewise, civilians could request recorded evidence as proof for any claims of mistreatment on their end. The government position also argued that video recording is simply “better evidence” than most, as it flatly records exactly what happened with little to no room to speculate. They argued that “better evidence means better justice.”
The University of Miami team did an exceptional job at opening the debate, but much of their initial charisma was undermined slightly by a weak and rushed delivery. They later found their footing and were able to outpace the Rollins debate team in terms of delivery strength, but it allowed for the opposition team to retaliate with a strong stance. The opposition team cited the Eric Garner case, where video evidence depicted the entire incident and very clearly demonstrated police abuse, and yet, there was no indictment. The opposition team argued that we as a country do not need “better evidence,” but “better interpretation of evidence.” They emphasized that adjudication was the key to progressive actions on the issue. They then argued that police cameras would violate personal privacy, especially as hacking technology becomes more and more accessible. They also cited how body cameras could pose religious complications for some members of the community who interact with police from time to time, such as Amish or indigenous American tribes—these groups generally do not like to be photographed on religious grounds, so a forced recorded action by police could be argued as an infringement of religious freedom. Lastly, the opposition team argued that mandatory body cameras would ultimately infringe on personal autonomy, both for the police and for those the police interact with. Any lawsuits that arose from these legal complications could unnecessarily tie up state funds for months at a time.
The Rollins team began with a very strong delivery. Their initial argument seemed to win the favor of most of the audience, with frequent “Hear, hear!” chants arising from the crowd. However, by the second round, it seemed that the University of Miami team had found their footing, and for the remainder of the night they appeared at equal odds against the Rollins team. The government position retorted that cameras provide singular, objective evidence that do not require excessive interpretation. Additionally, anyone can technically videotape anyone else in secret, regardless of whether or not it infringes on his or her religious rights. They cited several public forms of video taping, such as security cameras, that in no way infringed on those rare and specific members of the national community whom might be opposed to being recorded. The government position also brought up how frequent entrapment is in police work, and how body cameras could cut down on this nasty historical routine drastically. Indeed, body cameras would empower citizens wrongfully accused by the police, thus freeing up the state from needless and detrimental “false” cases. Although their delivery was a little fast, the government position was argued noticeably sounder in the second round.
Later in their argument, the opposition introduced the concept of the convergence theory of justice, which essentially robs police of internal review, one of the principal blocks towards achieving justice and trustworthiness between victims and police investigations of misconduct. By replacing internal review with a panel of investigators made up of a community civilian branch, a police branch, and a federal branch, there would be a less biased “jury of peers” in regards to deciding if a particular action of an active police officer was defendable by the state or not. The opposition doubled down on their stance regarding better interpretation rather than better evidence. However, by the end of the second round, the audience seemed to be more in favor of the government side rather than the opposition.
In the final round of the debate, the audience asked questions that were mainly targeted at the government position. The University of Miami team reiterated that the transparency offered by mandated body cameras would build empathy for both citizens and police, crucial for a healthy community. They also argued that the convergence theory of justice wasn’t enough to effect change, as faulty or unreliable evidence could still safeguard unprofessional police from indictment. Finally, body cameras would force police to reconsider their actions in real-time – they would carry themselves in a more professional manner with the understanding that any and all of their actions belonged to the public as a means of safety and review. The opposition closed their argument with an emphasis on removing internal review for police and that mandating police body cams would only be “putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.” However, towards the end, the opposition side began to fall into circular arguments, only able to repeat previous statements rather than expand on them when pressed by questions from the audience.
Ultimately, the judges declared Rollins the winner in terms of superior debating technique and skill. That said, this does not mean that the opposition position held the right position, but nor were they particularly wrong about anything. Both sides demonstrated remarkable talent and preparation for the debate and both sides shined at different points during the evening. I had personally believed the University of Miami team to win, but I can see how the judges might have interpreted the arguments differently. On a personal opinion note, I say – por qué no los dos? I think if police were mandated to wear body cameras while on duty and if internal review was replaced by a more democratic and transparent process, police and community relations would improve drastically over the first decade of implementation. This would by no means solve the enormous social issues concerning police conduct and race relations, but it would certainly bring those issues to the glaring view of the public, where they should be. We live in a time where the watchers need to be watched, and who better to hold accountable those who are supposed to protect the community than the community itself?
Photography courtesy of Scott Cook, Rollins College. Pictured: Alex Peterson debating University of Miami.