It’s Going to Take Way More Than 50,000 Body Cameras to Reform Policing

Technology alone won’t prevent police shootings.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

Dec 4, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

When announcing that a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said, “Many witnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown made statements inconsistent with other statements.” Even before Wilson escaped charges for the shooting, politicians, community organizations, and even law enforcement officials had already been advocating for a technology that could have cleared up these inconsistencies: body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers.

Responding to outrage over the non-indictment, President Obama pledged $263 million for police reform efforts nationwide, $75 million of which would be spent on body cameras for 50,000 police officers. Though use of body-worn cameras is not widespread, a company called Vievu has sold more than 40,000 cameras to 3,900 police agencies, while Taser has sold 30,000 to 1,200 agencies, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

But many experts say that while body cameras could help make the facts of a case clear, they’re not going to stop police killings or ensure that officers are charged or prosecuted with any greater frequency. If Darren Wilson had been wearing a camera, we’d know whether Michael Brown had his hands up, for example. But video can’t help resolve “issues of how people interpret facts,” Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor and professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told TakePart.

In the 1992 police beating of Rodney King, which was caught on video, as well as the choking death of Eric Garner, juries found in favor of the police officers despite public outcry over videos showing what appears to be excessive force. Whether an officer is indicted all comes down to what a prosecutor chooses to show a grand jury—and how that jury decides to interpret the evidence presented.

Because prosecutors depend on police to investigate crimes and work closely with them, many have questioned their ability to be objective. Michael Bell’s son was killed by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., in 2004. In response to Brown’s death, Bell wrote that at the time his son was killed, he “hadn’t understood at first how closely related the DA and the police were…. It was a clear conflict of interest.”

The officer who killed Bell’s son was cleared of all wrongdoing within 48 hours and is still on the police force 10 years later. But this year, thanks to Bell’s tireless advocacy, Wisconsin became the first state to mandate that an outside agency investigate police-related deaths.

Jones-Brown thinks that based on the video and the coroner’s report stating that Eric Garner’s death was a homicide, a prosecutor should have gotten NYPD officer Dan Pantaleo indicted by a grand jury. The officer used a choke hold, a maneuver that has been banned by the NYPD for 20 years, to arrest someone for a low-level crime, and that choke hold caused the person to die. Other officers were at the scene and didn’t resort to that level of force. “Feels like the prosecutor didn’t do a zealous job to get the case indicted,” Jones-Brown said.

If existing incidents caught on tape are any indication, video won’t be a saving grace for police reform. “What if video doesn’t get recorded during a critical incident because officers are not trained, or they don’t understand how to maintain the equipment?” Michael D. White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, asked in a recent Scientific American article on body cameras. White has looked at the effectiveness of body cameras for the Department of Justice and points to some clear weaknesses with the strategy. The cameras could violate both citizens’ and officers’ privacy and represent a financial and logistical burden (though some of that burden may be lifted by the federal government).

Community organizations are also wary of the reform. “I’m not against having body cameras on police officers,” said Mariame Kaba, founding director of NIA Project, a community-based justice organization in Chicago. But she said that while cameras may bring some transparency, “Doesn’t mean there’s a difference in the way we indict people, and we aren’t ending racism.”

The cameras and training are going to cost a lot of money too. Rather than spending resources on technology, Jones-Brown wants the federal government to establish a commission investigating the cause of police homicides. At this point, she said, “it’s not an accident; it’s a pattern,” and the United States needs research to understand why excessive force occurs in some places and not in others.

Meanwhile, the cameras are coming, and they will at least give police departments, juries, and communities more information about what goes on during tense interactions.

“What we’re hoping is, if the officers know their actions are being videotaped, they’ll be less likely to lie,” Jones-Brown said.