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For NYC traffic enforcement, body-worn cameras are not the solution


The Communication Workers of America Local 1182, which represents the city’s 2,500 traffic enforcement agents, are asking for body-worn cameras (BWCs) as a part of their contract talks. Traffic agents are employees of the NYPD, which completed its roll out of BWCs in 2019. 

Police body cameras have quickly become standard police equipment. But while BWCs continue to expand across law enforcement agencies, the scientific evidence of the effectiveness of the devices remains mixed and at a monumental cost to taxpayers. 

BWCs are prohibitively expensive. In some locations, the long-term costs have been cited as a barrier to either adoption or the continued use of body cameras. Depending on the size of a municipality, it can cost millions of dollars a year to manage the data produced by the devices. 

In 2021, for instance, Nassau County purchased 2,500 BWCs at a reported cost of $2.5 million. The cameras usually require a subscription plan to a service provider (often either Axon or Motorola, the two companies that currently dominate the BWC market) and data management costs are a concern. Currently, costs associated with data management are an additional $2.5 million a year in Nassau County alone. 

Sayed Rahim, the president of Local 1182, said he believes the cameras are necessary for the safety of traffic agents, even suggesting with no evidence that BWCS are “more important than the bulletproof vest.” The belief is that the cameras would serve as a deterrent to bad behavior. 

That belief is not supported by evidence, so equipping traffic agents with BWCs with the aim of deterring bad behavior at a substantial increased cost to taxpayers makes little sense.

Research illustrates that citizens often do not recall when police officers are wearing BWCs, so whether the cameras can effectively deter citizen behavior remains an assumed hypothesis. A cursory review of publicly released police body camera footage serves as additional anecdotal evidence of citizens ignoring police commands even when they appear to otherwise be aware that they are being recorded. 

A plethora of citizen recordings on social media serve as further anecdotal evidence that show people who are fully aware that they are being recorded while engaging in various attacks, assaults, harassment and other questionable and outright criminal behaviors. 

Other measures have been introduced to deter assaults on NYC traffic agents, but to little avail. For example, consider that assaulting a traffic officer was made a felony in NYC in 2008, yet assaults on traffic enforcement officers have continued, growing by 10 percent in 2022. 

Presumably, a great deal of attacks on traffic enforcement agents are thoroughly documented by the city agents themselves, including recording the license plates and details of alleged assailants’ vehicles, information that can be used to retrieve the names of accused offenders who can then be held to account for their alleged transgressions. 

Bystander recorded cellphone footage has also documented numerous attacks and harassment of traffic officers. Mobile phones and surveillance cameras are ubiquitous and will continue to capture unscrupulous behavior and attacks perpetrated on traffic officers. Commonly, it is also citizen-generated footage, and not BWC recordings, that bring public attention to some of the most egregious incidents of police brutality. 

The most well-known example is the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The officers were wearing body cameras when they killed Floyd, but it was the bystander video that went viral on social media that led to the quick firing of the officers followed by murder charges. 

Providing traffic enforcement agents with BWCs will not necessarily serve as a deterrent to bad behavior. Neither is it cost-effective. Adoption of BWCs would cost millions of dollars annually, and potentially indefinitely, proving a drain to city revenue with little or no justification. 

Taxpayers would have to foot the bill for BWCs for traffic officers with meager evidence to justify their use as a deterrent mechanism. Or revenue generated from traffic infractions would have to be diverted to fund BWCs even while there is no guarantee that body cameras will address the safety needs and concerns of city traffic officers. 

As some of the lowest-paid city employees, surely NYC traffic enforcement agents deserve a raise. BWCs remain a costly hypothetical solution to a complex matter and will almost certainly not deter assaults on traffic officers.

A more sensible idea might be to increase traffic citations and fines imposed on those found guilty of assaulting city workers and then use these additional funds to support a pay increase for the city’s 2,500 traffic enforcement agents. 

Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of “Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media” (Lexington Books, 2016).


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