In the wake of protests over police violence against black men, many civil rights activists are calling for a high-tech solution: strapping wearable body cameras to cops. The idea is to hold police accountable for unnecessary violence. But the history of police body cams reveals that the devices have often had the opposite effect.
On the afternoon of March 1st, a band of Los Angeles Police shot a homeless man. Video of the incident was captured by both a witness armed with a cell phone, and by body cameras strapped to the officers. Despite the evidence, what actually happened on Skid Row before police shot Charly Keunang remains a matter of dispute. How it went down depends on who you ask — and, more importantly, on whose video you’re watching.
The civilian shot video from a short distance away, and the footage shows officers circling Keunang before a physical struggle erupts. Keunang is thrown to the ground. Officers struggle to contain him. He’s resisting but subdued. He’s not going anywhere, but he hasn’t been cuffed. Then after some yelling, three officers open fire.
From this perspective, the story doesn’t look too good for the LAPD. Sure, Keunang was resisting, but was he such a grave threat that he needed to die?
The answer to that question hinges on what the officers saw. The LAPD hasn’t released police body camera footage captured at the scene because it’s evidence in an ongoing investigation. That’s consistent with policies nationwide, and the footage will almost certainly be released eventually—but could take up to a year or possibly even longer.
The LAPD has kept a tight gag on the investigation, but in a news conference the day after the shooting, LAPD police chief Charlie Beck said, “It appears officers acted compassionately up until the time when force was required.” According to the official LAPD line, Keunang attempted to grab a gun from an officer during the altercation.
So we have two pieces of footage, and two stories. A civilian saw a gang of cops killing a poor black man on the street. But police saw a suspect trying to grab their guns.
This is going to be a crucial test case for body camera footage. It’s also the first to crop up following the widespread social unrest over murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Perhaps the most concrete demand of the protesters came straight from the family of Michael Brown. On the evening a grand jury failed to indict the officer who shot him, Brown’s family implored supporters, “Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”
At the time, there was a prevailing feeling that the witness testimony in the Mike Brown case had not uncovered the truth of what happened the afternoon Brown was shot. If only we’d had a record of the event, we would know for sure whether Brown had really attacked Officer Darren Wilson before the shooting. Or, if as Brown’s supporters claimed, he had been executed after throwing up his arms in surrender. (In a pair of investigations, the Justice Department both cleared the killer cop of the shooting and found that the Fergusson Police Department was rotten with racism.)
On December 1st, President Obama proposed $75 million in matching funds to help police departments buy the technology. Two weeks later, On December 16th, Los Angeles announced a test program to put 800 cameras on cops throughout the city, with a wider rollout to the entire force planned for the future. It’s the largest municipality in the United States to deploy a widespread police body camera program.
As a test case for the supposed social benefits of the technology, there couldn’t be a more symbolically-loaded city than Los Angeles. Nearly 25 years ago, four LAPD officers were acquitted for the savage beating of Rodney King, despite a damning camcorder video that captured the assault. Since then, civilian video has proven largely ineffective in convicting police of brutality—or even indicting them for possible crimes. And yet many people believe that civilian footage shows police violating the civil rights of people on the ground. Eric Garner’s death is the perfect example of this problem. Garner’s friend got video of the police choking him to death, but the officers were never indicted, as if video didn’t exist at all.
Body cameras, we’re told, will change the game. But if you look back at how this tech has been used in America so far, we already know what’s going to happen to the officers who shot Charly Keunang in Los Angeles: Nothing.
Police body cameras are a national issue today, but they’ve been in use in departments across the country for over five years. The technology’s evolution from an untested product to mainstream staple got its first real-world test on November 11th, 2009, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Officer Brandon Davis and his partner arrived at the home of Eric and Connie Berry to investigate a domestic disturbance. Connie opened the door for the officers and invited them in. When they entered, the officers found Eric sitting at the dining room table holding a Taurus 45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. The officers demanded repeatedly that Berry drop the weapon. When Berry didn’t comply, Officer Davis shot him twice, killing him.
The whole encounter was captured by a camera mounted to the side of Officer Davis’s head. The footage is hazy and disorienting; you hear the real urgency and fear in the voices of Officer Davis, Connie Berry, and Eric Berry. There’s definitely something wrong. But it’s also not the kind of solid evidence you might expect. You can sort of see Berry with his gun, but it’s frankly too dark to make much of anything out.
Sixteen days after the shooting, local prosecutor Daniel Shue declined to press charges in the killing, citing the footage as abundant evidence that the use of deadly force was justified.
The case is remarkable because footage from a camera was used to exonerate an officer. But what most people don’t realize is that the death of Eric Berry also helped to launch a new technology. Taser, the manufacturer of camera that got Officer Davis off the hook, lit up its publicity machine immediately after the incident. The very next day, Taser pushed out a release about the case, paying special attention to the exoneration. What could have been a complex investigation full of contradictory statements was simplified by the company’s new wearable cameras.
Shue, the prosecutor, is prominently featured in press release, which quotes his report on the shooting.
“I must also mention my review of the AXON recording of the above detailed event,” said Prosecuting Attorney, Daniel Shue. “This new technological tool recorded the entire incident by both audio and video. Though there are several third-party witnesses, as well as the officers’ own recollections of some of the events leading up to the weapons discharge, this technology enabled this office to observe what happened with complete objectivity.”
Of course, not everyone believed the case was so clearcut: Connie Berry would later go on to file a wrongful death suit against the police department. She lost, and her appeal in the case was denied last fall, just weeks before the Mike Brown and Eric Garner juries released their findings.
Officer Brandon Davis, however, became a poster boy for the technology. He’s prominently featured in a short marketing video about the Berry shooting, which emphasizes how fast Davis was exonerated. He was back on the job just 72 hours after the shooting! In another sell sheet, he’s pictured wearing the camera on his head next to a quote: “I loved the multiple mounting options of AXON Flex. The integration with Oakley makes it cool and comfortable. This is a system officers will want to wear.”
Taser first showed its AXON body camera at its annual Taser Conference in June 2008, a little over a year before the Berry shooting; the company later showcased it at the Chiefs of Police Conference in November that year. The original design called for a head-mounted camera attached to a body-worn pack. The idea was that when an officer had an interaction with a civilian, they would switch the camera on. The recorded data would then be uploaded to Taser’s cloud-based video storage platform Evidence.com, where it would be retained for a duration of time, depending on what local records laws demand.
The technology has gone through several iterations since the first camera, mostly to make it more comfortable for officers to wear. In addition to a second-generation head-mounted camera with less body-pack baggage, Taser also offers a body worn model, which is the one that’s used by the LAPD.
You probably recognize Taser as the company that makes the high-voltage shock weapon that’s ubiquitous among police these days. According to Taser rep Steve Tuttle, body cams actually grew directly from the company’s high voltage weapons. Taser had begun putting cameras in the shockers that would be activated automatically when the weapon was used. The footage could then be used after the fact to protect officers and police departments—not to mention Taser itself—from lawsuits.
From the beginning, Taser has marketed its tech to law enforcement customers with the promise that body cams are a quick way get out of lawsuits. And the AXON body cameras were the next stage in that campaign. “The AXON is the next great innovative step in law enforcement technology,” CEO Rick Smith said in a release in the fall of 2008. “It will help provide revolutionary digital evidence collection, storage and retrieval for law enforcement.”
On an investor call the following summer, just as the company was getting ready to put the Axon cameras into production and start cautiously pushing them out into the world, Smith detailed just how the cameras fit into the broader Taser mission. On the street you tase people, but afterwards, you need to be able to show why you did it:
Well with the AXON’s ability to record exactly what happened, we improve the legal performance of the agency and the court system. So now they’re able to show an audio/video account of exactly what happened, recorded from the officer’s point of view. So this allows the agency to better defend its officers actions, to rapidly dispose of false complaints, and to better prosecute criminal activity recorded into digital record.
A few sentences later, Smith also claimed that the cameras could be used for police reform. It could legitimately be used to bust police in the act of doing something wrong. Bad police are the exception, and departments are better off without them:
Well with AXON if the officers are doing something wrong, we’re going to know that too. So it’s actually going to help agencies better perform their jobs by not only improving the performance of their officers, but if their officers just aren’t hitting the performance levels required, it’s going to make it easier to make the change that I think everybody wants, which is get bad cops off the street, and let’s make the good ones better.
To date, Taser has sold some 30,000 cameras to roughly 2500 agencies under the logic that cameras make the job of policing safer—for the police.
Just a week before the Fort Smith shooting established the exculpatory powers of body cameras, the San Jose Police Department became the first to publicly announce it would getting cameras on a trial basis. San Jose did a pilot program, but the city still hasn’t fully invested in the technology. In fact, it would be years before big cities with huge police departments would get started. In the first year after announcing AXON, Taser pitched the cameras at trade shows and at departments across the country. Taser rolled out pilot programs in towns where police chiefs expressed interest. The early adopters make Fort Smith look huge: Aberdeen, South Dakota; Lake Havasu, Arizona; Burnsville, Minnesota, and other small towns and cities.
Over time, these pilot programs produced many of the lightly-reported local success stories that helped Taser make its case for police body cameras. “The system proved to be very beneficial in the prosecution of crimes and the resolution of conflict,” Captain Daniel McNeil told the Aberdeen News in South Dakota. After a brief test with the cameras, Burnsville, Minnesota decided to place a full order, citing the speed in evaluating and processing citizen complaints: “The AXONs are going to save us money,” Police Chief Bob Hawkins told the StarTribune.
In short, police officials who’d splurged on the unproven tech claimed that cameras provided departments with the technology to efficiently dispense with spurious complaints that would have otherwise cost a fortune to settle. For that reason alone, it was worth the investment.
The city of Rialto, California, a 100,000-person community about an hour east of Los Angeles, finally gave Taser the critical evidence it needed to move the technology forward. Rialto’s police chief William Farrar has a long history of experimental police work, and a graduate degree in criminology from the University of Cambridge in the UK. He got interested in body cams while he was working on his degree—and he wound up using his own police force to study the effect of using police body cameras.
Under controlled conditions, Farrar studied how the presence of police cameras affected the nature of encounters between police and civilians. After outfitting the department with cameras, violent encounters dropped by 59 percent, while complaints dropped by 88 percent. Even police not wearing cameras saw a reduction in violent encounters in complaints.
Illustration by Sam Woolley
It’s hard to overstate the impact of this study on the progress of body camera technology. The case was widely reported, including several glowing profiles of Farrar in the New York Times. Police networks circulated the findings uncritically, as a kind of tacit endorsement of the cameras.
The study even entered courtroom decisions. In August 2013, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered NYPD precincts to test the technology. The order was part of a ruling where she found the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk procedure discriminatory and unconstitutional. She cited Rialto as evidence that cameras could be helpful in reducing community tensions and fostering police reform.
By the time Obama proposed $75 million in federal funding for police cameras this past December, Rialto was cited in basically every news story on the topic. Taser rep Steve Tuttle says that the Rialto study marked a major turning point for Taser’s sales as well. The technology really began to take off in the wake of Rialto’s success.
Despite the Rialto study and several others, there’s still not a broad body of data on how police body cams affect police behavior and community responses. The state of rigorous study of police body cameras is neatly summarized in a recently released working paper on the subject from the Data and Society Research Institute:
Little is known about the potential long-term impact of body -worn cameras. There has been no large-scale, systematic empirical research on their usage or implementation, and the evidence available today is based on small, local studies with limited generalizability.
The paper takes a close look at Rialto as well as a few other that have been performed so far. According to one of its authors Alex Rosenblat, the only really generalizable point is that cameras lead to a drop in complaints, partially because after people look at the footage, they see themselves and decide pursuing the complaint isn’t worth it. Still, it’s hard to make broad claims from the data because the contexts of all of the studies are so different. What’s more, it hasn’t been shown that cameras have a lasting effect after their initial rollout. Will the findings about reduced violence hold after people get used to seeing cameras everywhere?
Another problem is that the studies touted by Taser and law enforcement overlook many examples of how the technology doesn’t really benefit citizens and how it might be abused.
Though many people are advocating body cameras in the service of police reform, it’s worth remembering that these devices are still overwhelmingly used as a way of exonerating police. Police are very quick to release footage in shootings in Syracuse, Daytona Beach, and Salt Lake City because all of these cases were unquestionably justified. There are dozens of such videos.
In fact, until recently, body camera footage has never been used to indict an officer.
On January 12th, 2015, officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez were indicted for the 2014 shooting of James Boyd. The whole shooting was captured on body camera. Boyd, a homeless, mentally ill man, was camping in the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The officers arrived and told Boyd to pack it up and move it along. When Boyd refused, the officers called in scores of reinforcements. After being temporarily concussed by a light and sound grenade called a flashbang, Boyd made some threatening movements with some knives from his pockets. Officers repeatedly demanded he drop the knives. Then, in the heat of the moment, Sandy pulled the trigger.
Watching the video, it’s clear that Boyd didn’t need to die and that the officers weren’t in any kind of imminent danger. In fact some contend that Boyd was in the process of surrendering when he was killed. There was absolutely a potential threat—there almost always is—but there were many options beyond killing Boyd.
Ultimately, the officers were indicted, indicative of how body cameras could help hold police accountable. But as Rachel Aviv’s excellent New Yorker investigation on police shootings in Albuquerque illustrates, the indictments only came after the problem of shootings in the city got so bad that the Justice Department swooped in and investigated the department for far-reaching abuses of power and use of excessive force.
Laura Ives, the Albuquerque civil rights attorney representing the Boyd family says, “Without the lapel camera, there is no case.” Without the cameras, the police would have come back from the foothills and spun whatever story got them off.
The James Boyd case provides one example of police accountability that civil rights activists hope to see more of in coming years. It allowed the justice system to pursue punishment for officers that did things that are unquestionably wrong. But despite the Boyd case, there’s very little evidence that cameras are going to provide the kind of case-by-case accountability that angry people in the streets crave.
Still, there’s almost no opposition to the technology from people on all sides of the law enforcement spectrum. Cops, lawyers, activists, and vendors all support the tech. “Why not have the footage?,” argues Taser’s Steve Tuttle. Tuttle’s trying to sell cameras so his enthusiasm for the technology is understandable, but his sentiment is echoed by activists as well. Even the ACLU, an organization that is usually skeptical about the surveillance implications of widespread camera use, has supported the technology from the beginning. The group published a white paper in 2013 outlining policy priorities on the subject. “People expect there to be video,” ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley told me. That’s the age we live in. People are surprised when events aren’t recorded.
These perspectives feel right. Why not? Transparency and evidence are indisputably good things. With the right policies in place to ensure that the cameras are used properly and fairly, the social benefits could be tremendous.
The most optimistic reading of the technology I’ve heard came from Alex Rosenblat from the Data & Society center. “It’s not useful to look at it as a way to punish specific officers,” she said. “We should be asking how can we use the experiences recorded on camera to improve training.”
I’ve viewed the technology with critical distance so far in this story because it doesn’t ever lead to convictions of police officers. Surely some officers deserve conviction? It’s unreasonable to suggest that the police never do anything wrong. But if punishment is unlikely, simply for reasons of systemic bias, maybe the tech can still lead to a slow march of reform, even if that’s not quite as cathartic.
Laura Ives, the Boyd family lawyer in New Mexico, concedes that while seeking accountability on the individual level is important, “Not every mistake by an officer is unconstitutional and not every case is criminal, but you can certainly improve it.”
Admittedly, police reform from body camera footage is an idyllic scenario, especially given our experience with the technology so far. It’s very hard to manage these programs in such a way that the video is systematically collected, and readily available.
The New Orleans police department, to name a prominent example, has deployed them, with mixed success. Data reviewed last year by the Justice Department found that in of 145 incidents in which New Orleans officers equipped with body cameras used force, just 49 of those incidents had footage available. That should be seen as a colossal failure of transparency. Either officers weren’t turning cameras on, or the footage was magically disappearing after the fact.
Even when footage does exist, it’s not necessarily easy for a citizen to get their hands on it. Last year, CityLab tried to get a hold of San Diego police department footage, and the department flatly refused to hand it over. Part of this is a result of legitimate privacy concerns, and part is the sheer number of hours required to censor footage.
The fact is that police are more than happy to make the footage available when it makes them look good. But when police behavior might be controversial, as in the case of the recent LAPD shooting, we aren’t getting the transparency that the technology promises.
There is no denying that police body cams are already the future of law enforcement. If you live in the U.S., they are likely to be coming to your city or town. Will they prevent the next Michael Brown shooting, or at least get the officers involved indicted? Can close study of the footage lead to reform? History suggests otherwise. But we can always hope.
This post has been updated since publication to fix typos and clarify language. The content is unchanged.
Top image by Jim Cooke