Human Rights

The Eric Garner Case Shows Body Cams Don't Mean Much

You'd have to actually believe in police abuse for cameras to be effective.

It's official: body cameras don't work.

After a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who was captured on camera choking Eric Garner to death, the argument that cops would be more cautious in their dealings with civilians went down the toilet. Even after the coroner ruled Garner's death a homicide, it wasn't enough to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Though Ramsey Orta, the man who recorded Officer Pantaleo, was indicted on weapon's charges back in August. 

As the Marshall Project reports, President Barack Obama plans on purchasing 50,000 body cameras for police officers nationwide in an effort to quell longstanding mistrust between black communities and the police. There are more than 630,000 police officers in the United States but only 70,000 of them wear body cameras.

In the aftermath of the police shooting deaths of Michael Brown, and most recently, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, in Cleveland, Ohio, there have been calls for officers to wear body cams. 

The president's pledge will cost $75 million of the $273 million he has pledged to community policing initiatives. Once implemented, it will nearly double the use of body cams worn by cops. Since 2011, the Justice Department has been exploring how best to document police misconduct and recently released a set of “recommendations and lessons learned."  

As promising as body cameras are, wide-ranging use of them has been elusive. One reason is cost; Each camera costs between $800 to $1,200. 

While body cameras may help capture more interactions between citizens and police, some critics are suspicious of them. The ACLU, for example, has recently supported the use of cops wearing body cams, but formerly regarded them as “another broad surveillance tool.” 

Here is more insight on the complications of using body cameras from the Marshall Project:

"In Seattle, for example, Courts have wrestled with the question of what consent is required to initiate camera recording. In Denver, policymakers are anticipating a range of thorny issues. What happens to an officer who intentionally turns the camera off? When will footage be made available? Where? To whom?

"Ethical and legal questions overlap with more practical ones. How much footage can and should be recorded? Most cameras are designed only to be activated during an encounter deemed worthy or necessary of documentation; otherwise the volume of recordings would become so vast it would be virtually unusable. But less isn’t necessarily better: a study of New Orleans police found that even when cameras were present in police cars, they were only turned on in about a third of 'use of force events,' creating what officials called 'justified suspicion among citizens.'"

Then there is another issue: if the camera does in fact capture clear evidence of police abuse, a jury may not find a reason to indict the cop. Cameras that record abuse are only as effective as the courts that determine if a criminal case against the cop should go forward. The Eric Garner case proves capturing police abuse won't lead to the cop being indicted. 

The handheld video footage from the early 1990s of the savage beating of Rodney King also shows that abuse caught on camera doesn't necessarily lead to convictions of abusive cops. The pessimism over the effectiveness of cameras is well-warranted, but ultimately should not discourage the use of them.

And then there is the issue of the camera going black while an officer abuses someone. As AlterNet previously reported, some cops have consistently failed to turn on their cameras or wear them at all during vital moments. Anti-police brutality activist Josmar Trujillo said that body cameras aren't the primary tool that will end police abuse:

In the end, it's also important to remember that there are some elements to police brutality that are "beyond law and order," Trujillo added. "There’s racism in play.” 

Most situations, even if captured on video, can be viewed differently by different people. So it's clear that the idea of using police body cameras to obtain “objective” video footage does not always hold up, especially within a racist system. 

“People are not willing to acknowledge the history of the U.S. that feeds into what’s happening with police brutality,” Trujillo said. “There’s a general sense that black young men carry criminality in their skin so police officers are justified.

Body cameras, despite the very well-documented issues that come along with them, should be a national standard. Of course with proper policies in place to ensure their reliability. It is best to have abuse documented than to have no documentation at all. 

While video footage of Garner's death may not have lead to the indictment of Officer Pantaleo at the local level, there is hope that the case can gain traction through a civil suit or a federal investigation. But the reality is that video recordings of police abuse will only matter in the courts if the black people abused by cops matter in the minds of jurors who are weighing the evidence.  

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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