Putting Body Cameras On Cops Won't Fix Misconduct, But It's A Good Start
from the the-other-option-is-business-as-usual,-which-is-completely-unacceptable dept
Prompted by the fatal shooting of Ferguson resident Mike Brown, a We the People petition asking the federal government to require body cameras for all law enforcement officers has roared past the 100,000 signature threshold required for a White House response. (Theoretically.)
The petition asks for the creation of the “Mike Brown Law,” which would mandate the use of body cameras and ensure agencies are supplied with funding needed to comply. The usual caveat about bad laws being named after deceased persons aside, the use of body cameras by police officers is nearing inevitability, what with police misconduct now being a mainstream media topic.
It’s not a complete solution, but it is a very valuable addition. Dash cams, which have been in use for years, only capture a small percentage of interactions with civilians. While the use of body cameras will prompt new privacy concerns, the presence of the unblinking eye has been shown to make both police and the public behave better.
The problems with body cameras are both human and technological. Currently, almost every camera system is controlled by police officers. Guidance on what does and doesn’t need to be recorded isn’t always clear. What may seem to be a deliberate effort to conceal something may just be an actual malfunction. And, like any other system meant to create greater accountability, it can be gamed.
In New Orleans, Armand Bennet, 26, was shot in the forehead during a traffic stop by New Orleans police officer Lisa Lewis. However, the police department did not reveal until much later that Lewis turned off her body camera just before shooting Bennett. Bennett survived and has now been charged under prior warrants for his arrest. It also reviewed that Lewis had had a prior run in with Bennet who escaped about a week earlier.
At first glance, it has all the appearance of a deliberate coverup. But there could be dozens of legitimate reasons this encounter wasn’t recorded.
The obvious reaction is that she turned it off to conceal the fact that she was about to plug Bennet in the forehead in a moment, and had the presence to do so without creating a conclusive record. But we easily see that because of what happened afterward. Post hoc rationalizations are easily deconstructed.
Perhaps she turned it off when she thought the confrontation was over. Perhaps she turned it off by accident. Perhaps she desperately wishes now she had kept it on, to prove Bennet took some action to justify her shooting him in the forehead. Or, as appears most likely, perhaps she turned it off so that there would be no video of what she was about to do.
This solution won’t — and can’t — solve everything. Beyond the actions of police officers, there’s the technology itself, which is far from perfect. Unfortunately, efforts to improve are being hamstrung by those most resistant to police officers being watched.
When an officer presses record, the camera saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment, but not the audio. The manufacturer designed the buffer to protect the privacy of police officers — and to appeal to resistant police unions — but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident.
Even a more-complete version of the events (compared to gathering eyewitness statements and weighing those against police reports) may still be missing crucial evidence, thanks to the efforts of police unions. As we’ve noted here earlier, legislators and government officials are becoming more receptive to the use of body cameras. Those raising the loudest objections are the erstwhile mouthpieces of the officers themselves.
The mayor of Miami-Dade sees the potential benefits of body cameras.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez is calling for hundreds of the county’s police officers to be equipped with video cameras, weeks after after a police involved shooting in the Midwest triggered days of violence.
As national outrage about alleged police misconduct in Ferguson, Mo. continues, Giménez is pushing to make body cameras mandatory for all county patrol officers. His proposed budget is calling for 500 cameras, which would cover about half of Miami-Dade’s patrol force.
“The body cam is a way to assure that there’s confidence in the police department, that if they had been wearing a body cam, say, in the incident that happened in Missouri, there would be no debate as to what exactly happened,” said Giménez…
Next year’s Miami-Dade County budget calls for $1 million for the body cameras, with an additional $400,000 in operating cost and for the data storage required.
In a written grievance filed with the county’s police chief, a union lawyer wrote that wearing the cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations …”
The one-button operation of most cameras would seem to be something most officers will swiftly become accustomed to, rather than the huge impediment the police union portrays it as. But according to the union, nearly anything at all — even a quick tap of the “RECORD” button — could mean the difference between life and death (of police officers, that is…).
[T]he Miami-Dade police union [also] cited the distraction caused by officers having to activate the camera before approaching a traffic stop or potential arrest. “As anyone with knowledge of police training and tactics knows, if an officer hesitates for even a second in a life threatening situation, it can cost that officer his or her life, and/or put the lives of others at risk,” the complaint reads.
I don’t think anyone believes this hyperbole, not even the unions themselves. The only reason they’re against body cameras is because they firmly believe police officers shouldn’t be held accountable for their misconduct. They completely ignore the results shown by law enforcement agencies that have put body cameras into use — that they reduce both the use of excessive force and allegations of police misconduct.
Body cameras aren’t a cure-all, but they’re much more beneficial than resistant police officers and unions give them credit for. It’s the direction our nation’s law enforcement agencies need to be headed. It’s ridiculous that we’re still almost wholly reliant on something as malleable as police statements and eyewitness interviews. A camera isn’t completely neutral, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’re normally given to work with.