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Body Cameras Are Not Pointed at the Police; They’re Pointed at You

Civil rights advocates warn body cameras are no substitute for comprehensive police reform and may even threaten civil liberties.

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Something unusual happened during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday – the committee reached a consensus, at least informally. Although they admitted that there is no “silver bullet” for restoring the public’s faith in law enforcement in the wake of several high-profile cases involving killer cops, lawmakers from both parties, along with every witness called in to testify, agreed that police officers across the country should wear body cameras.

“If you could get the right protocols to protect privacy and make sure the officer is using the camera in an appropriate manner, do you think it’s best for the nation to go down this road?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a broad coalition of civil rights groups that have drawn up guidelines for body camera deployment.

“Without question, I think it’s absolutely essential,” Henderson replied.

“Does everybody agree with that? If you don’t, speak up,” Graham said. The room was silent.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of the public agrees, as well. The highly publicized deaths of one unarmed Black man after another at the hands of police have given body cameras serious political momentum.

A 2012 survey found that 25 percent of departments are already using body cameras, and about 80 percent are actively evaluating the technology, and those numbers have probably increased in recent months as Congress and the Obama administration announced millions of dollars in funding for equipment and training. Body cameras, it turns out, tend to be popular among cops and their supervisors.

Henderson and other civil rights advocates, however, warn that body cameras alone will not solve the problem of racist and violent policing. Without the right policies and safeguards in place, body cameras could even make those problems worse.

“There is a real risk that these devices could become instruments of injustice instead of tools of accountability,” Henderson told the committee.

No Substitute for Real Reform

Malkia Cyril, a prominent civil rights activist and director of the Center for Media Justice, said body cameras are no substitute for the kind of comprehensive reforms needed to curb police violence and hold cops accountable.

“Police body cameras are an unproven technology to collect evidence,” Cyril said in an email to Truthout. “But this technology can’t be relied upon to ensure police accountability that we, as a nation, have failed to implement.”

Cyril said the focus should be on strategies to demilitarize police forces, fund education and employment programs in communities excluded by racial discrimination, and protect people from government surveillance, which could increase as body cameras are adopted on a mass scale, especially in communities of color, where police already have a heavy presence. Body cameras are pointed at the public, not the police, and could easily become another tool for surveillance.

With body cameras being rolled out across the country, Cyril said, every state must pass a “right to record” law to affirm the public’s right to film the police on their own without facing harassment and the threat of arrest.

“It’s bystander and civilian video, along with popular uprisings, that brought the issue of police brutality and murder to the national stage – not police body cameras,” Cyril said.

Studies on local police departments have shown that the number of complaints against police officers and use-of-force incidents dropped after officers were outfitted with body cameras, and advocates agree both police and the people they interact with tend to behave better when the camera is rolling. Even law enforcement officials, however, say that body cameras alone will not mend community relations or prevent violence.

“Law enforcement agencies across this country are in desperate need [of] cultural diversity, use of force and de-escalation training,” said Jarrod Bruder of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, who called on Congress to increase funding for such programs. “Advanced training, not just basic training, is absolutely critical in our efforts to provide public safety.”

Bruder said body cameras can increase protection for police officers and the public, but policy makers should not put “too much trust” in the technology. It cannot “magically” prevent tragic situations like the death of Walter Scott, the unarmed Black man who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston, South Carolina, after attempting to flee a routine traffic stop last month.

Police representatives like Bruder often request money for more training because it points the finger of accountability at lawmakers and the taxpayer, instead of at the police, who can often dodge taking responsibility for their own actions.

“On the one hand, training is a critical component of any job. On the other hand, cultural sensitivity training is counteracted by the failure of law enforcement to hold its officers accountable,” Cyril said. “As a result, the first and most important step we can take to decrease police violence is demilitarize law enforcement.”

Who Is Under Surveillance?

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from Charleston who has championed body cameras since Walter Scott’s death, requested Tuesday’s Senate hearing on body cameras. (The senator is not related to Walter Scott.) A video of the shooting taken by a bystander drew national attention to the issue, and officer Michael Slager was later charged in Scott’s death.

In his testimony, Senator Scott said that body cameras can “rebuild trust and construct brighter futures in many communities,” but agreed with advocates that putting cameras on cops is just one of many steps that must be taken to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and police brutality. Scott and other lawmakers also made it clear that they only want to assist those law enforcement agencies interested in body cameras and would not make adoption of the technology mandatory.

Henderson, however, pointed out that it was bystanders, not police with body cameras, who recorded the tragic encounters that led to the deaths of men like Walter Scott and Eric Garner.

“There is a temptation to create a false equivalence between these citizen-recorded videos and body-worn cameras operated by law enforcement,” Henderson said. “I urge the committee not to give into this temptation, because body-worn cameras won’t be operated by concerned citizens and won’t be recording officers. They will instead be directed at members of the community.”

Henderson said that body cameras would exacerbate the dramatic disparities in how different communities are policed, if the technology becomes a “multiuse surveillance tool” for law enforcement. He warned against using facial recognition and other biometric technologies, along with body cameras, which would give law enforcement unprecedented abilities to peer into heavily policed neighborhoods, where stationary surveillance cameras are already abundant.

“These cameras should be a tool of accountability for police officers – not a face or body scanner for everyone who walks by on the street,” Henderson said.

There are currently no federal rules or guidelines for when police officers should turn cameras on and off, or for the handling and storage of footage after it is taken. Individual departments must grapple with questions of how to balance the need to protect personal privacy of those on video and grant the public access to evidence.

“We always want to make sure that people at their most vulnerable do not end up on YouTube,” said Lindsey Miller, a researcher at the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that has studied body cameras.

Miller’s organization recommends that cops be required, with limited exceptions, to turn the cameras on while responding to all calls for service and to keep them on during encounters with the public. The Forum also recommends that cops be required to ask crime victims for their consent before interviewing them on camera, and that they be allowed to turn the camera off when receiving information from confidential sources.

Henderson and civil rights advocates say they recognize that police departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to a wide audience, but that any footage of police using force should be made public soon after the incident. Footage should also be made available to anyone who was filmed and wishes to file a complaint, along with the family members of anyone whose death is related to events captured on tape.

State lawmakers in South Carolina are already moving to exempt footage from body cameras from Freedom of Information Act requests, leaving it up to police and those videotaped to decide if and when the footage is publically released. Henderson said he is “concerned” about such “unilateral declarations” that block access to police videos.

Officers should be prohibited from viewing videos before they file reports, for example, and the vast majority of interactions with the public should be recorded, with exceptions made for sensitive interactions such as attending to victims of domestic violence. Such polices should be developed in full view of the public, with input from advocates and the local community.

“Without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problems in policing we are trying to fix,” Henderson said.

He added, however, that policies for body cameras are meaningless if racial profiling and excessive use of force are not prohibited in the first place.

Research on body cameras suggest that body camera footage provides learning opportunities for officers and can be used during training, but some civil rights activists doubt that providing police departments with millions of dollars in new resources will do anything to curb excessive policing. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

“You can’t train law enforcement to treat communities with respect, then arm them as if they are at war with an enemy combatant,” Cyril told Truthout. “That just doesn’t work.”

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