Last night, Michael Brown's family renewed the call for all police officers to wear body cameras that record their interactions with people. This is smart, but like every other tool we give the police, cameras will only work the way they're intended to if the cops don't abuse them.
In a statement following last night's grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for shooting an unarmed black teen, Brown's grieving family expressed disappointment in the decision, and called for peace in the streets. And the statement of grief came with a concrete policy goal: "Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."
It's useless to speculate about whether such technology could have saved Brown, but what is worth considering is whether body cameras are actually the panacea they've been billed as when it comes to protecting people from police violence.
The Brown family's call is only the latest in what appears to be a swelling, if informal consensus that body cams—which record video and audio of police activity—can prevent officer abuse and protect citizens.
A year ago, Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered New York police start wearing cameras in areas with rampant racial profiling. Police departments from Los Angeles to New Orleans to Las Vegas to, yes, Ferguson, are currently testing the technology. It seems obvious.
The perceived benefits of body cameras are outlined in a study commissioned by the Department of Justice: Cameras could theoretically increase civility, transparency, and evidence.
The theory is, if police and citizens know everything is being recorded, they are much more likely to behave. And when things do get heated, the recordings from a body camera could provide the evidence necessary to suss out just what happened. When tempers flare and police use force, it can be hard to figure out or prove who threw the first punch.
But is it that simple?
Well, the early evidence is encouraging. As you would expect, police and people behave better when there's a camera present. The first comprehensive study was conducted in Rialto, California and it's widely cited as an example of the good that can be done.
Last year, The New York Times reported that in the first 12 months of the study, complaints against officers fell from 24 to 3 percent, while police use of force declined from 61 instances to 25 instances—and that's with only half of the department wearing cameras. Evidence from other studies seems to reinforce the notion that body cameras encourage good behavior all around.
The problem arises in instances when police encounters aren't so idyllic. It turns out that when it actually comes time to review the evidence recorded, things get more complicated.
First of all, the evidence recorded by body cameras stands on shaky legal ground. As City Lab reported earlier this year, the San Diego police routinely deny public requests for body cam video, and the police claim that the footage isn't admissible in court. So much for transparency and evidence.
The degree to which footage should actually be viewable by public records request or in a courtroom is currently being debated across the country including in Ohio, Washington, and Colorado. In fairness, using footage in court to assess guilt or wrongdoing seems obvious, but both police and citizens are legitimately concerned about making every interaction recorded by the police public record—in an age of mass surveillance, people are understandably worried about their privacy.
The courts will ultimately need to decide just how broadly accessible the footage will be, but the troubling reality is that some police departments are going to work to keep footage out of people's hands when we need it most. And when it suits them, police can try to get the footage thrown out of court, too.
Whether the images are admissible or accessible only comes into play, however, if the footage actually exists. You see, in nearly every case the onus is on officers to actually turn the cameras on and make sure they are working when an interaction happens. A recent review of a body camera pilot program in New Orleans revealed that footage didn't even exist for an overwhelming majority of the cases that involved use of force. The Times-Picayune reports:
The monitor team reviewed reports of all 145 "use of force events" logged by the NOPD's Force Investigation Team in the first five months of 2014. It found only 49 reports clearly indicated the event had been recorded (34 percent). Of the remainder, 86 reports indicated no video was shot or preserved, and in 10 other cases it could not be determined if a video recording had been made.
The cops either weren't following the rules or they were destroying footage after the fact. The fact that cameras aren't always recording seems to be a fundamental flaw of the technology, but even if there was a way to ensure they were always on, there would be very little to prevent police from tampering with the cameras to ensure that interactions aren't recorded, or the footage after the fact.
It's clear that body cameras have the potential to really protect people from the police, but they aren't going to solve the underlying problems of oversight and abuse. And it should go without saying that for all the good technology might do to influence better behavior, there is a history of police violence against minorities, and indeed, a history of racism in our country that a simple camera won't fix.
It's worth considering the gun as an example here. If Officer Darren Wilson's gun had been used as prescribed, Michael Brown wouldn't be dead today. Wilson fired the gun when he shouldn't have. He "misused" it, as officers regularly do, and his department and the local government have gone to great lengths to defend him. Without proper oversight and implementation, body cameras will become just another weapon that's used against the people, without protecting them at all.
Illustration by Jim Cooke