Human Rights

Will Forcing Cops to Wear Body Cameras Quell Brutality?

While some cities see positive results, the cameras also have their limits.

Photo Credit: FOX San Antonio YouTube.com screenshot

This past May, Daytona Beach police officers were wearing body cams when they approached a woman and began handcuffing her for drug possession. In the middle of their arrest, the cameras went blank. When they were turned back on, the woman’s teeth had been knocked out. 

This is just one example of the obstacles that come with the use of police body cameras, a topic that has reemerged since the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

A petition launched on August 13, calling for a “Mike Brown Law,” would require all police to wear cameras. It quickly garnered the 100,000 signatures needed to obtain a response from the White House. On August 19, the city of Ferguson released a statement saying it promises to raise and secure funds for officer vest cams.

Much support for police body cameras has come from the findings of one collaborative study between universities and the police department in Rialto, Calif. It found that in the first year Rialto cops wore body cameras, complaints against officers fell by 88 percent compared to the previous year. Use of force by the officers fell by 60 percent.

But while some cities have seen some positive results, these cameras also have limits concerning implementation, surveillance and effectiveness. For instance, officers in some departments have continuously failed to wear or turn on their body cams at vital moments. The cameras also raise privacy concerns. Furthermore, the body cams can hardly be a cure-all for police policies entrenched in racism. 

What’s the Best Way to Implement Police Cameras?

Poor implementation of officer body cams can render them useless. A report on the Oakland Police Department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies using the cams, found that officers were refusing to wear or turn on their cameras, especially at critical moments.  

That’s why the ACLU only supports the use of police body cameras if the correct policies are in place.

“We just don’t think officers themselves should have the discretion,” said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the ACLU in Washington.

While on the one hand, the ACLU doesn't support officers having the control over taping public encounters, Rickerd said, “We recognize that there are private elements to a shift, whether they be discussions at the stationhouse or changing into uniform.”

In a report detailing the ACLU’s stance on police body cameras, author Jay Stanley argues that the best solution to maintain this balance seems to be a department mandate that ensures officers turn on their cameras before every public interaction. 

Stanley stated:

This requirement must have some teeth associated with it — not only a risk of disciplinary action but also perhaps an exclusionary rule for any evidence obtained in an unrecorded encounter (for police who have been issued the cameras, unless there is an exigency to justify the failure to record). Another means of enforcement might be to stipulate that in any instance in which an officer wearing a camera is accused of misconduct, a failure to record that incident would create an evidentiary presumption against the officer.

How Can We Limit the Risks of Privacy Invasion and Surveillance?

Amidst the increased invasion of people’s privacy due to increasing surveillance, the ACLU believes police departments must take important measures to ensure that the “cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around.”

For one, the ACLU states that recordings should be limited to uniformed officers who should be required to notify people that they are being recorded. When it comes to the intrusiveness of recording inside private homes, the ACLU suggests that citizens be able to make recorded requests to have the cameras turned off.

“In sensitive situations, a domestic violence survivor may not want to be recorded discussing an incident,” Rickerd said. “And if the consent is given on the camera to stopping it that would be fine.”

In terms of data retention, the ACLU is against a big depository of film being collected and held indefinitely or released without any evidentiary value.

Rickerd said departments should use three red flags to identify what data and recordings should be kept beyond a matter of weeks: the occurrence of a use of force, an arrest or detention, or a complaint.

“The general capturing of police encounters, absent any misconduct or other concern about a particular incident, should not be kept for longer than weeks,” he said.

When there is misconduct, however, the ACLU states that people recorded by the cameras, and in some cases the general public, should have access to the recordings. Otherwise, the cameras will be used almost exclusively to benefit the police department. This is currently the case in San Diego, where the department routinely denies requests for video.

Are Body Cameras the Cure-all For Police Brutality?

Even with the right framework in place, the ACLU and anti-police brutality organizers recognize that police body cams are not a complete solution to police brutality.

“It’s an important component. It’s absolutely not the panacea,” Rickerd said. “Training is very important, a culture of integrity, a strong complaint process—all of these have to work in tandem.”

Anti-police brutality activist Josmar Trujillo agrees. Trujillo lives in New York City, where a federal judge called for the NYPD to wear body cams last year when ruling stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. He is a spokesperson for New Yorkers Against Bratton, an ad hoc group of activists, parents and social workers formed after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would bring back Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner.

Trujillo believes that Bratton’s signature "broken windows" method of policing, which has set the stage for police policy nationwide, is where the focus should lie. The process, which focuses on going after low-level crime, increases the number of encounters police are having with civilians.

“Brutality is a culture and it’s made possible through the unnecessary number of interactions that police are creating within communities, particularly communities of color,” Trujillo said.

Eric Garner was stopped for selling cigarettes, while Michael Brown was stopped for jaywalking. Trujillo said he was stopped for having his foot on a chair in the subway and spent a night in jail because he didn’t have his ID on him.

“So body cameras could possibly take some of the edge off, possibly make someone think twice about it,” he said. “But ultimately, you’re still going to have incidents like this because of policy, not because cops know they are being watched or not.”

Trujillo pointed out that the police officer who killed Eric Garner was aware he was being filmed performing a chokehold—an action banned by the NYPD 20 years ago. In addition, he has stated, "The media coverage of Ferguson is perhaps the largest-scale, most viewed cop watch video(s) to date. And still, police do what they want.”

Trujillo believes that broken windows policing, introduced in the ‘90s, is part of the reason police get away with acting with impunity, especially in communities of color.   

“It’s the moment they made it into a benign formula all about crime,” he said. “If you weren’t behind law and order, you were an apologist crime. So it didn’t invent racist policing, but it made a veneer for it.”

What are the Limits to Video Footage in Minimizing Police Brutality?

Ultimately, mandating police to wear body cameras can be an important element to protecting the public and minimizing police brutality. The ACLU's Chris Rickerd is currently advocating for U.S. border patrol agents to wear body cameras. He said civilian video recordings of dozens of fatal encounters at the border in the last few years have exposed officers misrepresenting the facts. 

“The absence of recordings means these stories don’t get told and the investigation and accountability doesn’t happen,” Rickerd said.

But he also warns that law enforcement can’t continue to rush the use of these cameras before the framework is in place to ensure proper implementation and limit privacy invasions. Nationwide, the ACLU has yet to endorse any police department’s policy on body cams for living up to its standards. In addition, some experts argue that independent research on the cameras is still lacking.

Yet, officer body cams are already beginning to flood police departments. Taser International (the stun-gun maker) and VieVu are the companies set to make millions. The chief executive of Taser International told the New York Timesthat more than 1,200 U.S. police agencies have purchased the company's most advanced line of body cameras in the last few years. And since the situation in Ferguson, interest in the cameras, which cost between $600 and $900 each, has skyrocketed.

These purchases, however, don't mean that effective body cam policies have been established. And Josmar Trujillo maintains that the use of body cams will give people a false sense of reform and let policymakers—and their policy that creates overpolicing of communities—off the hook. 

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.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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