Human Rights

Body Cams Can Capture Abuse, But Can They End Police Brutality?

Criminal justice experts say much more is needed to really reform police departments nationwide.

Ray Tensing and Samuel DuBose
Photo Credit: via YouTube

The swift first-degree murder charge filed against a former University of Cincinnati police officer after his body camera captured him shooting an unarmed black man to death reflects how crucial video is in proving police misconduct.

When Ray Tensing pulled Samuel Dubose over on July 19, his body camera captured the entire stop. After Dubose was unable to produce a license and prevented Tensing from opening the driver door of his vehicle, the former cop shot him in the head. Tensing claimed he was being dragged by the car, which was proven untrue. A police report of the incident also shows officers on the scene lied about seeing Dubose’s car “dragging” Tensing.

Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters said that, without body camera footage, he would have “nothing” and that “it would have been a very, very different case.”

The power of camera footage was also on display in North Charleston, S.C., earlier this year when police officer Michael Slager was captured on cell phone video shooting Walter Scott in the back. He was immediately fired and charged with first-degree murder. Several California cities, including Oakland and San Diego, have reported a decline in complaints against officers after members of their departments began wearing body cameras.

The idea of body cameras is popular with national politicians. Hillary Clinton, a leading presidential candidate, has called for all police departments to outfit their officers with body cams. In December, Obama proposed to spend $75 million for 50,000 body cameras, but funding is being stalled in Congress. At the moment it is not clear exactly how many police departments are using body cameras. The ACLU estimates that 25 percent of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies use them. Over the past few months, more local departments have begun pilot programs to test body camera technology, so the idea is catching on.

As critical as body cameras are in exposing police abuses, law enforcement experts told AlterNet that policymakers at the local and national levels need to do much more to curtail police brutality. Tensing wore a body camera, but still ended up abusing his power and shooting Dubose to death for no reason.

“It just goes to show how ineffective body cameras are and will be in reducing these kinds of incidents,” Shafiq R. Fulcher Abdussabur, a former president of the National Association for Black Law Enforcement Officers who works as a police sergeant in New England, told AlterNet. “Body cameras do not deter police misuse of deadly force. They just capture it. That’s all they do.”

Alexandra Moffett-Bateau, an assistant professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, added that body cameras are an incomplete solution.

“I think body cameras are a necessity given the political climate that we live in, but I'm not sure they are the answer,” Moffett-Bateau told AlterNet. “We saw in the filming with Sandra Bland that all of this technology can be tampered with in one way or another. So, yes, they are making a difference, but I'm not sure that they are the best or even the most effective solution.”

Some issues with body cameras include the discretion officers have in turning them on or off during a stop and at which point. A report reviewing the NYPD’s body camera pilot program recommends that officers turn on their cameras during all interactions with the public, as opposed to just "reasonable suspicion" interactions as currently required. A police monitor wrote in a report of the Denver Police Department’s body camera pilot program that, out of 80 use of force accidents, usable footage was available just 47 percent of the time.

Will officers face severe disciplinary actions if they do not turn on their body cameras? How often are body cameras monitored by supervisors and who is making sure footage is being properly stored on a regular basis, untampered? Can we even trust police officers to turn over video of possible misconduct to local prosecutors? These are some of the myriad questions regarding body cameras.

Robert Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project, in New York City, says officers like Tensing need to know that if they abuse their power, the law won’t protect them. AlterNet shared some reform ideas he favors, including police review boards having subpoena powers and ending the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which protects officers from lawsuits that allege they violated a private citizen's civil rights. But even those wouldn’t go far enough.

The problem, Gangi says, is that cops are often evaluated on quota-based policing such as “broken windows” and other tactics that focus on racking up arrests that have been shown to disproportionately target minorities. In New York City, more than 80 percent of people arrested under “broken windows” for the past 13 years have been black or Latino. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told NPR that some of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country use quota systems. In 2013, the Los Angeles City Council settled a $6 million lawsuit with a group of police officers who accused their supervisors of enforcing a secret quota system for traffic tickets. As the Washington Post reported, black people are far more likely to be pulled over for a traffic violations than white or Hispanic people. American Indians are more likely to be pulled over than any other race.

“Quota systems put pressure on cops to make these kinds of arrests and give out these kinds of tickets on a monthly basis,” Gangi told AlterNet. “It leads to discriminatory behavior by the police. Body cameras will help in certain instances, but they won’t change the nature of policing.”

So what will?

Moffett-Bateau believes police reform needs to be a national issue led by Washington with reforms that are as similarly far-reaching as the Civil Rights Act of 1965 for the country to see real change. “The federal government needs to get involved and overhaul the entire criminal justice system from top to bottom,” she said.

Martin O’Malley, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, revealed his criminal justice reform plan to Ebony.com Friday. One of his reform plans would be to nationalize use of force standards. The plan says O’Malley “will support legislation to require states to review and amend their own use of force laws to comply with federal guidelines.”

Eric Sanders, a former NYPD officer who currently works as a civil rights attorney, says cops have too many legal protections. He believes police officers’ internal review records should be made available to the public but many states have laws preventing that from happening. New York is one of 11 states that protect cops’ personnel files. So, if an officer is abusing his or her power on the job, it is nearly impossible for the public to gain access to that information. Police advocates claim that cops have a right to privacy, but Sanders, who served with the NYPD for more than 12 years, doesn’t agree.

“When you take that job, you waive a lot of the private parts of your life because you’ve been given so much authority,” he said. “Yet we turn around and say, ‘We don’t want people to use our records against us.’ No, no, no, no, no. You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. The bottom line is this: If the cop is clean, they are professional and doing what they are supposed to do, then you don’t have to worry about that.”

The overprotection of cops played out in San Diego, the same department that reported a decline in complaints. The SDPD refused the release video footage of at least two shootings in 2014 because the video was captured on devices pay for with tax dollars and the cops wearing them were on public payroll, so it’s not public record. If body cameras become a national standard, clarity over the rights of the public having access to the footage will have to be addressed.

Abdussabur, who wrote the book A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement In America, says more training is needed. While activists like Rev. Al Sharpton and other national leaders have balked at the recommendation of more training as a reform tool, Abdussabur believes increased mandatory training that focuses on de-escalating conflicts and dealing with minority communities will make a difference. After officers leave the academy, they really don’t undergo much training to help them understand the communities they serve, he added.

“There is no mandatory training nationwide that says, ‘Police officers must be trained on how to deal with black people,’” he said. “We train police officers on how to use a gun. They don’t come in knowing how to use one. That firearms training is drilled into them until it becomes a second-nature habit of behavior when they’re out in the field. When they’re out in the field and see that black male dressed in red, we don’t want them thinking, ‘His name is probably Snukkie and he runs with the Bloods.’ Instead, we want training that specifically aims at removing false stereotypes and negative perceptions about black people.”

But Sanders says the real issue is that too many police departments cover up abusive behavior, and until the culture that protects bad cops is dismantled, body cameras won’t be enough to weed them out.

“Police work is not for everybody,” he said. “The problem is the screening process where you find out that officers are no longer suitable for police work and you don’t get rid of them. What we do is keep the same problem cops over and over again. Everyone knows who they are. They don’t get rid of them. There are no consequences for bad behavior. That’s the problem.”

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