Two years ago, body cameras were rolled out as the solution to high-tension police interactions with civilians that were resulting in countless high-profile deaths of unarmed black men and women.
But today, the implementation of body cameras hasn’t resulted in the noticeable positive shift we would have expected.
Numerous videos can be found online of unarmed victims appearing to be mistreated by police officers. But little can be shown that these videos have helped in holding police officers truly accountable in court.
As we begin to enter a new year, the question we need to ask is whether body cameras effective tools on their own?
In the spring of 2015, the United States Justice Department announced what was supposed to be a game changer: the Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Pilot Partnership Program, a $20 million investment in providing body cameras to police departments across the nation.
In a statement announcing the rolling out of this program, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that body cameras held “tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety.” If the Obama administration’s embrace of body cameras seemed like a top-down, overly optimistic policy move, it wasn’t. Or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Many grassroots-oriented civil rights organizations also talked about body cameras as a real solution.
Black Lives Matter’s Campaign Zero listed body cameras as number six on a list of policy solutions. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote extensively in favor body cameras, although they’ve since updated their recommendations to address issues surrounding footage release.
The move to adopt body cameras wasn’t just happening on a federal level. It was occurring on a state level, too. Analysis by the Associated Press showed that 24 states, in light of Ferguson, had passed forty new pieces of legislation to address police interactions with the public. The number didn’t even count all the many that had been introduced but had failed to be passed.
Even Republican politicians seemed willing to adopt body camera legislation. In 2015, under Republican governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina became the first state to require the use of body cameras. Nevada became the second state to require their use, after the bill was signed by Republican governor Brian Sandoval.
A genuine, bipartisan movement to curb tragic events like Ferguson with the use of body cameras seemed to be taking place in 2015. So what happened?
The truth is that body cameras suffer from a multitude of cultural problems: the criminalization of the black body, the failure of law enforcement agencies to establish real community relations and lack of general transparency.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, explains. “I think the issue is not so much legal as it is practice, culture, and technology. I think in terms of practice, there needs to be a standard for when and how body cameras are used. But also, there is a societal issue, where even in cases where there is clear wrongdoing, it’s not necessarily the case that jurors will determine that an officer is culpable.”
Why aren’t jurors seeing clear wrongdoing where it exists? Levinson-Waldman gives us three reasons. “One, police are legally given a huge amount of deference. So when a police officer says ‘I feared for my life,’ that is given a lot of weight. Two, I think jurors are thinking, ‘Well, I wasn’t there. I didn’t see everything.’ And then, it becomes a question of who do you believe more. And lastly, I think that to some extent there is bias in the system.”
When there is no video, black victims are thought to have done something wrong. When there is video, black victims are thought to have done something wrong off camera or before the incident,..."
The questions of how much weight you give the officers, who you believe more and how much bias colors your understanding sometimes drastically changes when you change the appearance of the victim. When a Minneapolis cop, Mohammed Noor, shot Justine Diamond, a white Australian women, no video was available of the event. It was Noor’s word against Diamond. And yet Robert Bennett, an attorney for Diamond’s family, called Justine “the most innocent victim.” He went on to say about her clean record: “There isn’t anything that can be said about Justine.”
If there wasn’t any video and officers are given such deference, why was Justin being depicted as innocent? The problem is not with Justine.
The problem is our refusal to extend that reasonable doubt to cases where the victim is black. When there is no video, black victims are thought to have done something wrong. When there is video, black victims are thought to have done something wrong off camera or before the incident, such as having a criminal record.
Furthermore, there is too much ambiguity on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras and the surrounding protocol. The most common problem being that there is no standard concerning when it is best to turn the camera on, or off.
Video cameras, in general, are not new to police departments. As noted by Jessica Macari, an attorney at the North Carolina District Attorney’s Office, many agencies in the 1980s implemented the use of dashboard cameras, although their vantage point is fairly limited and most don’t have audio capabilities. Needless to say, cameras have been around for a long time.
Fatal shootings by law enforcement raised calls for increased transparency and accountability. Utilization of BWCs was seen as a tool to provide additional police conduct oversight.
But perhaps the expectations we have of body cameras in general are too high. As Levinson-Waldman says, “some of these problems aren’t the fault of the officer but are just the way body cameras function. They are put on a police officer so they aren’t able to capture everything that the officer him or herself is doing.”
Many police departments across the country rushed to implement new programs with body cameras, failing to consider the the breadth of issues involved with video use in general.
There are two dominant policy ideologies; Record Everything vs. Officer Discretion. Supporters of having cameras on during all public encounters, except during breaks and when off-duty, argue this will curb “selective recording” accusations and prevent turning cameras on mid-confrontation, which could escalate violence. Others favor officer discretion, where some events will not be recorded out of concern for encounters on private property, privileged information, sensitive witnesses/victims, informants, nudity and privacy rights. While both perspectives have merit, there are obvious downsides as well.
Levinson-Waldman doesn’t think we should move to open up all footage in all cases. Rather, she thinks a better idea would be to change the way police officers can use video recordings.
Instead of officers being able to watch video and then write their reports, Levinson-Waldman says the order “would be to have police write their reports first, then allow them to look at the footage, and then amend the reports if necessary. These amendments would be noted. That way, if an officer sees the footage and genuinely needs to say ‘I realized that,’ it can be taken into consideration. However, it would be a noted as an amendment.”
Some studies show that BWCs have mixed impact on reducing use of force in tense situations. In some instances, BWCs decrease force, while they increase the likelihood of force in others. Why? It’s possible that public perception was altered due to knowledge of cameras, which result in increased reporting of force. In other cases, officers may be more inclined to use force assuming that footage will show “facts” were on their side.
But whether it be Philando Castile, Tamir Rice or Alton Sterling, nothing body camera footage shows will be enough unless departments are willing to establish rapport with the communities they serve.
“The thing is, body cameras can’t change the way a department is ran.” said a Georgia police officer who has spent around 10 years working in narcotics as an investigator. We agreed not to name the officer, who fears going public could jeopardize his career.
Body cameras have shown that, as they stand, they alone are not enough to fix policing issues."
We spoke with this officer to gauge his opinions on BWC policy implementation and how much weight should be given to this tool in helping aide police-civilian relations. “I think if you have a department that is struggling with community relations, they’re struggling with excessive force, they’re struggling with just the job in general, I think body cameras will show a lot of that. If they have a good administration it’s going to be easy to see who doesn’t need to be in this career field. If any department is shying away from it, that’s concerning.”
The officer believes that it’s going to take a lot more than a camera to fix issues residing in some agencies “The camera is a tool that exposes, but you have to have the right administration to fix those issues... it’s up to the administration to act,” he said.
Body cameras have shown that, as they stand, they alone are not enough to fix policing issues. As we move into the next year, thought must be given as to how this problem can be addressed. The current administration is not likely to help. But this should be a major issue that we ask of our state politicians and future next president to answer.
The Georgia police officer agrees “It’s really going to take on behalf of the community that is able, to keep the department accountable, and not be afraid to question if something is wrong.”