A Police-Issued Body Camera May Not Have Saved Walter Scott
It’s been less than 24 hours since The New York Times released video of the deadly confrontation in North Charleston, South Carolina, between police officer Michael Slager, who’s white, and Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man who had been pulled over for having a broken taillight. The video, which was shot Saturday by an anonymous bystander, shows in gripping detail Scott, who was unarmed, running away from Slager. We see the officer shoot at least eight times at Scott, hitting him multiple times. It is unclear when Scott died, but the video evidence directly contradicts previously published accounts from Slager and the North Charleston Police Department that said Scott was shot during a physical confrontation with the officer. On Tuesday, Slager, a five-year veteran of the force, was charged with Scott’s murder.
The video has sparked widespread national outrage. It’s also put Scott on a growing list of unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of white police officers have sparked calls for an overhaul of America’s criminal justice system. In recent years, those reforms have included calls to require police officers to wear body cameras. If a police officer’s actions are recorded, the thinking goes, he will be more careful during physical confrontations with the public—or there will at least be video evidence of the encounter, should something go awry. Indeed, officers who wore body cameras had 87.5 percent fewer incidents of use of force and nearly 60 percent fewer complaints than officers who did not wear the cameras, according to a study cited by a White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. When officers in Rialto, California, started wearing the cameras in 2012, police violence declined 60 percent, and complaints against officers fell by 88 percent.
In North Charleston, the issue of body cameras has come up for contentious debate recently. The city recently announced a plan to buy 115 body cameras. But South Carolina lawmakers who oppose the plan argue the cameras are too costly—Baltimore city officials, for instance, estimate that it will cost $2.6 million to store the data and hire staff to manage it—or too unproven to justify the expense of maintaining video footage. Critics also raise privacy concerns—mainly, that anything recorded on the cameras can eventually be made public through a Freedom of Information Act request, and that such footage would include images of people on what officers have described as “the worst day of their lives.”
About one-third of America's 18,000 police forces are using body cameras. But the truth is, cameras may not have made a difference in Scott’s shooting, despite the mountains of evidence cited by proponents. A three-month investigation by Fusion shows little evidence that body cameras reduced police-involved shootings. The reason lies mostly in the fact that officers control when they record. What’s more: They usually serve police more than citizens looking to hold those officers accountable for unjust actions. As one body camera manufacturer told Fusion: "If police officers wear body cameras, 50 percent of their complaints will go away overnight."
Take the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police department—the officers have worn body cameras since 2010. But that didn’t stop officers from fatally shooting James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man, in 2014. The officers involved in Boyd’s shooting were wearing body cameras, and the incident was recorded. Boyd was one of 28 civilians who’ve been shot and killed by Albuquerque police officers in the past five years. (Two officers were later charged with first-degree murder in his death.)
Investigations on the police department’s use of force later published in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker pinned blame for the shootings on a culture of recklessness and lax oversight that body cameras alone won’t fix. "I don't see any evidence, behaviorwise, of a buy-in from the police department," Steven Tate, a retired Albuquerque Police Department lieutenant in charge of training, told Rolling Stone. "I'm not seeing any indication that they actually want to fix the issue. They just want to do the bare minimum. The DOJ can say, 'You need to have these policies.' Well, we have had a lot of them. Ninety percent of what they said should have been going on in the past."
Similarly, in remarks about the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing last December, President Obama was guarded in his praise of the cameras. "I think the task force concluded that there is a role for technology to play in building additonal trust and accountability, but it's not a panacea," Obama said. "It has to be embedded in a broader change in culture and a legal framework that ensures that people's privacy is respected and that not only police officers but the community themselves feel comfortable with how technologies are used."