The Case for Body Cameras

The events in Ferguson and Oakland provide strong evidence as to why every police officer in the country should be wearing video-recording devices.

Over the past decade, the Bush and Obama administrations have steered billions of dollars in federal funds to local police agencies. The resulting militarization of America’s police departments has been well-documented — as has the wasteful spending by police on military-style hardware, such as armored vehicles, body armor, and assault rifles. But that doesn’t mean that all taxpayer funding on police technology has been a mistake. In fact, there’s one piece of equipment that the federal government should fully fund for use by every police agency in the country: body cameras.

Indeed, testimony in this week’s disappointing — although not surprising — decision by a Missouri grand jury to not file criminal charges against white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown made it clear that body cameras should be worn by all law enforcement officials. If Wilson had been wearing a body camera when he shot Brown to death on August 9, we would likely have known exactly what happened in the case. Moreover, Wilson might have acted differently had he known that his actions were being recorded and would be closely scrutinized later.

That’s why Brown’s family has called for the nation to “join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”

Body cameras, sometimes called lapel cameras, are small video-recording devices that police officers wear on the front of their uniforms, and they’re designed to record all police interactions with the public. The mandatory use of them is advocated not only by civil rights activists, but also by many police officers, who maintain that they’re often wrongly accused of misconduct. Body cameras, these officers argue, will prove definitively that cops usually comport themselves in accordance with the law.

Body cameras also could go a long way toward bridging the racial divide over police conduct in the digital age. These days, nearly everyone has a smartphone camera, and so we seem to have become increasingly dependent on “smoking gun”-type video or photos to determine the truth and to overcome our biases. And that’s especially true when it comes to police.

Poll after poll has shown that whites tend to be biased toward police, while people of color tend to be biased against them. For example, on Monday, before the grand jury’s decision was announced, a CNN poll found that 54 percent of blacks, Latinos, and Asians believed that Wilson should be charged with murder, while 38 percent of whites thought that the officer should not be charged with any crime at all.

And the reasons for these biases stem from real experiences. For instance, statistics compiled by Mother Jones magazine earlier this year showed that African Americans are four times as likely to die in police custody as whites, and that Latinos are more than twice as likely to die in police custody than whites.

So without hard evidence supplied by video or photos, we’re often left with our pre-conceived notions when deciding whether a white cop was justified when he killed a young, unarmed black man. Moreover, the Ferguson, Missouri case was compounded by the fact that there were conflicting accounts of what happened. Some witnesses said that Brown had his hands in the air when Wilson gunned him down, while Wilson and others said that Brown was advancing menacingly toward the officer.

Body-camera video likely would have revealed the truth — much like cellphone video did in the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland. Indeed, without that video, it seems clear that BART police officer Johannes Mehserle would have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of manslaughter.

But video cameras can do more than provide hard evidence in officer-involved shootings. They also can change cop behavior, and be used as training tools to help officers learn how to avoid dangerous situations in which they believe they have to use deadly force.

Jim Chanin, a longtime East Bay civil rights lawyer who has been involved in numerous police misconduct cases over the years, noted that the evidence in the Ferguson case strongly suggested that Wilson was not properly trained — and that if he had been, Brown might still be alive today. “From a perspective of proper police tactics, [the killing] was avoidable,” said Chanin, who has played a pivotal role in reforming Oakland police conduct.

Chanin noted that, according to Wilson’s own grand jury testimony, Wilson decided to pursue Brown alone — on foot — after Brown had acted violently. According to Wilson, Brown allegedly punched Wilson while Wilson was still sitting in his police vehicle. “To get out of your car and follow that guy … means that, A, you don’t think that guy has a gun, or, B, you’re stupid because you’re exposing yourself to someone who has a gun.”

Chanin said Wilson should have called for backup and waited for help before continuing the pursuit — if he thought Brown posed a lethal threat. (Wilson testified that he thought Brown was armed because he said Brown reached for his waistband in the moments before Wilson shot him.) Chanin also noted that Brown, prior to his interaction with Wilson, had only been suspected of stealing a handful of cigarillos from a liquor store, and not of committing any violent crime, so pursuing him at that point was unnecessary. “We’re not talking about someone who just murdered or raped someone, we’re talking about a guy who just stole some cigarillos.”

In Oakland, police are required to use body cameras (although some cops still resist them), and officers have undergone extensive training on how to avoid dangerous conflicts. And there’s evidence that the training and cameras have worked. The number of police misconduct cases has dropped significantly over the past eighteen months, and during massive protests on Monday night in Oakland after the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case, Oakland police repeatedly resisted engaging in violence with demonstrators. It was a stark contrast to the Occupy Oakland response by police three years ago when cops used heavy-handed tactics and repeatedly escalated — rather than de-escalated — tense situations.

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