Do police body cameras protect the public?

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The Atlantic published recently that the number of cops indicted for murder so far this year is greater than it’s been in the past five previous years combined. Since 2015 is set to be one of the safest years for law enforcement in a quarter century, I can only assume the “war on cops” is in reference to the number of police prosecuted for crimes they have committed. It’s hard not to notice the correlation between the amount of video evidence of police abuse of power and the increase in police indictments. 

Groups like Cop Watch, Filming Cops and Peaceful Streets Project who encourage the recording of police have helped to create public awareness of problems, and websites like photographyisnotacrime.com have served as a voice to further awareness and demand accountability. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has also gotten on board with recording police and have helped to close the gap between public awareness and legal action with their mobile justice app.  Police on the other hand, work very hard to stay in the dark and off of YouTube. Not by doing anything crazy like respecting the rights of citizens and not acting like thugs, but by using fear, intimidation and misinformation. 

Are citizen videos fair to police?

A complaint often expressed by police when it comes to videos of police recorded by the public is the context of the videos. Like Boston police Commissioner William B. Evans who wants to make the recording of police “fair […] so it protects both sides”, and also expressed in articles like this one published in Police Chief Magazine saying:

Many of these videos are taken by the public at the point where force is being used on a resisting suspect with law enforcement being portrayed in an unfavorable light. They rarely record the incident that led up to and justified the use of force. This often leads to community and media outrage over legitimate and justified uses of force that are being negatively shown in partial video recordings and do not tell the whole story from the officers’ perspective.

In this case, an argument was made that police body cameras would protect the police by showing the full context of what led up to the use of force. It’s a valid argument that you need full context to understand what led up to and was used to justify use of force by police.

Perhaps with more context the public would understand why an officer would shoot a fleeing unarmed suspect in the back or why 14 officers would be needed to subdue a one-legged man or even perhaps why an officer would kill a man with a chokehold that had been banned since 1985.

Police body cameras aren’t fair to the public.

The problem with police body cameras is that the police control the footage. Every aspect of how it is recorded and released to the public. Meaning that police body cameras serve only as a way to protect police from the public, not a tool for justice against bad policing.

As it stands now, the body cameras offered by Taser and Viveu are turned on and off by officers when recording is necessary. Departments have different policies as to when recording is deemed “necessary”, but no matter the department’s policy, the decision to turn the camera on is at the discretion of the officer. Since the individual officer is in control of the recording, they are given the ability to chose the context that is shown (which begins to sound a lot like the complaint that police make about videos recorded by the public).

We’ve already seen police officers’ deem abuse of power to be not worth recording. One example of this is Albuquerque officer Cedric Greer, who was caught turning off his body cam in order to beat a homeless man. Greer was only exposed because another officer reported his misconduct. The sad reality is that 61 percent of officers admit that they haven’t reported serious violations on the part of other officers.

Assuming video of misconduct is even recorded, it’s the department who controls the release of the video to the public. Occasionally we will probably see a department that turns in one of it’s own as a “sacrificial lamb” of sorts, but I’ve spent a lot of time in open records request hell.  A police department can do a lot to delay releasing video if they chose. In my experience when the video shows police in a positive light it will be released to the media immediately, when video shows misconduct on the other hand, it can take months or even years to get video from a department.

The sacrificial lamb is a PR stunt.

Dallas County Sheriff’s Department recently fired officer Dee Hart because of body camera video showing him kicking an inmate’s stomach. Local WFAA who reported the incident was quick to quote several former police officers who held the position that body cameras would “professionalize the police force”. The idea that police-worn cameras will decrease bad behavior among police isn’t new — a number of studies funded by body camera manufacturers selling over-priced cameras and video hosting have come to the same conclusion.

I’m clearly a cynic, but I’m also a marketer; in the weeks leading up to the Dallas Sheriff’s department firing Dee Hart, Dallas deputies killed Joseph Hutcheson, an unarmed man who went to the county jail seeking help. Given that Hutcheson’s family has filed a wrongful death suit, showing that Dallas Sheriff’s are willing to fire someone for misconduct, would be an advisable PR strategy.

Both of the incidences I named were on video. Both involved an officer’s leg and a handcuffed man. One case had no possibility of a lawsuit and the investigation took only days before determining that an officer should be fired. The other case has a pending lawsuit and the investigation has been going on for over seven weeks. It’s true one involved a death while the other only involved an assault, but all six deputies who were involved in the case with a death (and a lawsuit) were reassigned, not fired. Yet the Dallas Sheriff was willing to fire an officer for kicking a man.

A few months ago, I wrote an article talking about how cameras being put on rhinos could stop poaching. It’s a brilliant way to protect the endangered species, but no one is under any delusions that the rhino cameras will protect the poachers or that making the poachers wear cameras would protect the rhinos.

Bottom line: video is at the very least a part of the solution to police brutality, but video recorded by police is for the protection of police and not the public.

Photo by Utility_Inc (Pixabay