Alton Sterling's Death Proves Once Again That Body Cameras Won't Stop Police Brutality

It’s going to take more than videos to promote police accountability.

Alton Sterling.
Photo Credit: Alton Sterling, right, and a screengrab from the bystander video of the fatal shooting by Baton Rouge Police. (Twitter)

On Tuesday morning, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry declared that no state charges would be filed against the two Baton Rouge police officers who killed Alton Sterling in July 2016. After months of deliberating over visual evidence such as body cameras, Landry said officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were acting in a "reasonable and justifiable manner" when they shot and killed Sterling two years ago in front of a store where he used to sell CDs. As the slain man’s relatives decry Landry's decision, it’s become distressingly clear once again that body cameras won't fix police brutality.

Although there are two publicly recorded videos of Sterling's death, there are another four videos compiled as evidence from the 2016 shooting. Out of those four, two are body camera recordings, according to CNN. Another video recording is from the store surveillance lens and the fourth is a dashboard video from the officers' police mobile.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has not released any of the body camera videos or the dashboard video for public viewing. But the two public videos, taken by passersby, show Salamoni and Lake tackling Sterling to the ground shortly after Lake tased the 37-year-old man. The officers said that Sterling was armed (which is legal in Louisiana given open-carry laws) and claimed that they acted in self-defense. But witnesses, such as store owner Abdullah Muflahi, told WBRC reporter Kelsey Davis that Sterling was “confused” about the officers’ aggression, not hostile.

There's a school of thought in the United States that says police body cameras will promote police accountability. The idea is that if officers have body cameras enabled, they are less likely to hurt civilians because they’re being recorded. Transparency, goes the theory, which was supported by Barack Obama, should be a product of such cameras.

But with the police killings of Alton Sterling, Eric Garner (whose killers were never indicted) and others, the idea falls flat on its face. In Garner’s case, body-cam footage failed to convince the New York grand jury to indict the NYPD officer who put a chokehold on the 43-year-old man. And even if the police body camera footage of Sterling's killing was released, it’s unlikely it would have changed the outcome for officers Salamoni and Lake.

Research shows that trials and convictions for aggressive police officers are uncommon in the U.S. Body cameras were supposed to slow such aggression down, yet the violence continues. That’s because there are several problems with body cameras.

For one, body cameras are aimed at the citizens, not the officers. The angle doesn't capture the police officer whose aggressive tone and stance might be causing the citizen to behave anxiously. It goes without saying that an angle sets the story, and a one-dimensional angle tells a one-dimensional story. Videos can perpetuate pervasive anti-black myths, and more importantly, they don’t address the problem with legal protections for police officers and how, as even federal prosecutors admit, such laws make it virtually impossible to indict brutal officers. On a sociological level, if this footage is released, it can become torture porn on social media networks where grisly images are retweeted and shared again and again. 

All of this is to say, it is highly unlikely body cameras will end police killings. Visual proof, as we have seen in different instances, is not enough to protect citizens. America needs an honest reckoning with its institutions of law enforcement and their racist origins as slave patrols, coupled with a legal movement that reforms the laws that shield violent police officers time and again.

Mehreen Kasana is a news writer for AlterNet. Previously, she worked as the front-page editor for the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @mehreenkasana.