In Defense of Body Cameras – An Important Short Term Movement Demand
Sections of the activist community are challenging the idea of body cameras on police officers. Their objections seem to stem from several rationales: (1) the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer in killing of Eric Garner despite the video tape, (2) the camera’s lack of ability to completely eradicate police violence, (3) civil libertarian issues on what type of state we want (if any), and (4) effective videotaping can only be done by the community.
Garner Case – The Video is Still Important
Despite their shortcomings, body cameras are a step forward in protecting communities against police violence. They add a powerful and additional source of evidence for families and individuals seeking justice. In the Garner case, the decision not to indict at the state level despite video evidence speaks more to the close relationship between police and prosecutors than it does to the issue of body cameras. When a prosecutor, who controls the grand jury process, decides to “throw” a case like a crooked boxer going down for the count it is not about the evidence anymore but the motives of the district attorney. In this case the prosecutor decided that maintaining his working relationship with police and his ideological belief in protecting white structural control against outsiders who challenge it was more important than securing an indictment.
As in the Rodney King case two decades ago, the video still matters. In King’s case, the video was an important factor in the federal prosecution and conviction of several of the officers after the state level juries failed. The video of Garner’s death means this case is more likely to lead to federal indictments (and the firing of the police) than the unrecorded killing of Mike Brown. In addition, the video evidence allowed King to file a civil lawsuit and win a major settlement. While this may not be important to the activist community (unless they are personally victimized and want to sue themselves), it is always important to the victims of the abuse. As Mrs. Esaw Garner stated post the non-indictment of her husband’s killing, “I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now”. With the video, Mrs. Garner has a strong chance of winning a settlement from the state. While this will not bring her husband back and create structural change, it provides financial relief to families that activists can’t provide.
As an attorney who has represented clients in police misconduct cases, having video documentation of the brutality never hurt. More importantly the video offers a powerful public counter weight to those who defend police actions unfailingly and reaches millions of people. Finally, it was the video of the brutal beating of Rodney King by the police that led to mass protest and open rebellion, which led to the federal indictments.
The Use of Video Will Not End Police Violence – So It’s Not a Good Idea
The idea that videotaping must completely change police behavior to be useful is a straw-man argument that defies rational thought. There is no policy reform that solves American racism or police brutality issues.
These structural issues can only be challenged by a critical mass that makes large quantities of people ungovernable. Though we may be having a “movement moment”, we are not on the brink of a revolution – sorry to disappoint. Yes we must use this energy to build toward bigger goals but we also need to secure short term reforms that lessen the effects of police violence. Esoteric sloganeering and conversations about the type of society we want to create do nothing to change day-to-day actions of police. I would rather have the behavior of the police somewhat restrained by the knowledge that their actions are recorded than to have those actions go unabated as we continue our circle jerk on what transformative changes are needed to create the wet dream society we want.
I am sympathetic to issues of civil liberties and how video can invade privacy and be used as a tool of evidence collection. However, police are not private citizens—they are public employees who have the power of life and death over the communities they work in. They have the power to seize people off the street and, on the basis of their word, lock them up and away from society for multiple years. This power outweighs for me the concern of additional public videoing and an additional tool for evidence collection. As we’ve seen, police and prosecutors don’t have any issue securing convictions, unless they involve the rich and well connected or the police. Otherwise, their conviction rates across the county are usually in the 80th percentile. Video evidence, then, is not needed to increase the conviction/plea rates already obtained by prosecutors.
Adding body cameras to the onslaught of videos already in the public sphere and already being used by the police in the form of dash-board cameras does not tip the balance of big brother spying any more than it currently is. The police have, for years, filmed public demonstrates to collect evidence and target activists. Some of this police activity against activists was regulated but has significantly loosened post-9/11. Additionally, the police can and do use private video captured by the public; this was most notoriously highlighted in their search for the Boston marathon bombers. Video technology is here and is being used by the police, having video available that corroborates a victims allegations against the police is worth the risk in the United States I live in today.
Only Video Captured by Activist and Community Members Is Useful
Cop-watches, in various forms, have been around since the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. In the 1990s, organizing groups revived cop-watches with cameras (as opposed to guns), particularly after the Rodney King video captured his beating by the Los Angeles police. As cell phones with cameras proliferated, public recordings of police misconduct have spread across websites and went viral on social media.
It is particularly exasperating when those who engage in or support cop-watches (as I have done and trained others to do) are opposed to cameras on cops. The idea that videotaping is only a righteous transformative tool in the hands of the “community” or mostly these days’ activist types who don’t live in those communities is irrational. Cop-watching is not a national program with funding that backs a wide reach. It’s a survival mechanism, much like when the Panthers provided meals for Black youth. This on-the-ground activism eventually led to a larger policy change—the creation of school based lunch programs in certain places. It’s a demonstrative model that shows what larger scale policy change can accomplish if state structures can be forced to do them (or were willing in the first place). I believe in creating institutions that give the community more power outside of a state apparatus. However, this belief does not justify leaving the state to its own devices when those institutions literally have the power of life and death over us. To rely on the diminutive few to video or monitor the behavior of literally millions of encounters between the police and people is unfathomable. Who can make the time to do enough cop-watches to have a transformative effect, nationwide, on police misconduct? It makes more sense to require body and or dash cameras outfitted on every officer who interacts with the larger community. To engage in policy fight on implementation that include audio with the cameras and punishments if the cameras are not on or turned off during any encounters on the street. If we really think that we can convince enough people to spend sizeable parts of their day chasing after police officers–after their work, after playing with their kids, after spending time with family and friends–then we are hallucinating.
To suggest that because the perspective is from the cops’ body, as opposed to a wider shot that captures the officer involved, is nit-picking. In some scenarios, there will be multiple cops on the scene and multiple angles. Some cops will have dash cameras that will also be filming. Finally, there are studies that document reductions in police violence when using body cameras. The most cited is in Rialto, CA. Here, public complaints against officers plunged 88% after the introduction of body cameras when compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%. In addition, police misconduct caught on camera has led to the dismissal of officers, disciplinary actions and criminal charges.
These studies demonstrate that that some behaviors will be curbed. Fighting for public policy changes that can reduce police violence is a worthy short term goal that should not be put to the side because it does not fit into peoples’ larger desire for undefined systemic change.