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Giving Police Departments Money to Buy Body Cameras Will Never End Brutality

As long as police departments have total control over body camera footage it won’t change their behavior, say activists.

For body cameras to serve the public, footage would have to be readily available, say advocates. But many police departments refuse to release camera footage even when evidence of misconduct is captured on cell phone cameras.

More than six months after having killed 27-year-old Brandon Roberts at his home, police in Milford, Delaware, are still refusing to release the footage from their body cameras.

Their ongoing refusal underscores what organizers believe is a major flaw with the emphasis on body camera footage: Police control the footage, and they selectively choose not to release it.

On January 5, Roberts was at home in his apartment in Milford with his pregnant fiancée, Erica Jones, and their 1-year-old son. At around 6:20 p.m., Roberts, who was on medication for bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, started acting frantic.

He called the police to tell them he and Jones were in the midst of an argument, and that there was a gun in the apartment. Jones quickly grabbed the phone to tell the dispatcher that this was not true: There was no argument, no gun.

What happened next is still a point of contention between Jones and the Milford Police Department. According to the police, two officers arrived on the scene and found Roberts with a knife in his hand. They say he started “advancing” toward them, and both officers fired. Roberts was killed.

Jones maintains that her late fiancé, while upset, posed no threat to her, their child or the officers. She also says Roberts, a Black man, told police he was having a mental breakdown while the dispatcher was still on the line. Then, when the officers arrived, Roberts opened the door.

He did not lunge at them. He didn’t even have a chance to raise his hand. It was less than three seconds,” Jones told Delaware reporters. “I couldn’t believe they shot him and all he did was open the door.”

Both officers were wearing body cameras, and the footage could conceivably end the debate about what happened on January 5. That is, after all, what body-worn cameras are intended to do: increase transparency by providing a clear record of events.

Yet Jones is still searching for answers that the police department appears unwilling to give. Police departments’ ability to withhold footage is a key reason why many activists say the increased calls for body cameras will not bring about actual police reform.

For these cameras to serve the public, anti-brutality activists argue, the apparatus of how they are used and who reviews the footage must be completely overhauled.

“When you think about body cameras without the proper context, they sound great,” says Lex Steppling, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Dignity and Power Now. “But cameras are part of a continuum that gives police more power and more funding from the state. They’re not used for justice, and they’re definitely not used to benefit victims and their families.”

Body-worn cameras first emerged as a popular source of reform after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. Then-President Barack Obama requested $75 million in federal funding for body cameras, and made plans to distribute around 50,000 cameras (which then cost between $800 and $1,000 each) to police departments across the country.

At the time, the nascent research available indicated that body cameras might not be the answer activists sought. A 2014 research analysis by Arizona State University criminology professor Michael D. White noted a reduction in citizen complaints across several studies, but also found that the impact cameras had on police conduct was inconclusive. Since then, researchers have learned more about body cameras, but few studies point to them preventing violence perpetrated by police. In 2017, the largest research study to date found that Washington, D.C., officers with cameras used force as much as officers without cameras.

Daniel Lawrence, a researcher at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, has spent five years studying body-worn cameras, with much of that research happening in cooperation with police departments. Some of his research concludes that camera usage can indeed lead to a “small to moderate” reduction in use of force. However, these studies also found that camera effectiveness is tied to their level of usage.

Some departments mandate that officers turn on cameras during an encounter; other departments give officers wider discretion. The Urban Institute found that use of force decreased within departments with stricter body camera policies, while increasing in departments where rules were more lax.

Lawrence has also found that officers review footage sparingly, if at all.

“There’s no way for first-line sergeants to quickly examine data and figure out when officers are activating their cameras when they should be,” he says. “The effort has been made to equip officers with the technology, but reviewing the data has been more complex.”

In most cases, police departments do not have the technical capabilities needed to parse out untold hours of footage and then conduct an in-depth analysis of the available data. Independent reviewers, like the one who works with the New Orleans police department, can bring a valuable, unbiased perspective to the footage, but most departments do not have the means or access to an independent review.

Lawrence says companies like the controversial Taser International, which has cornered the body camera market, could easily create an algorithm to make footage review accessible and manageable for police departments, but they have yet to do so.

“I see body-worn cameras as data,” he says. “There are millions of millions of hours of footage, and the footage is a gold mine. ‘Are officers aggressive? Are they yelling at people?’ These types of questions can create metrics that can be fed back into reports for sergeants, who can then use that data to hold their officers accountable.”

As the outcries for police reform continue across the nation, body cameras have once again emerged as a popular source of possible change. From New Mexico to Kentucky to Wisconsin, sheriff’s offices and police departments are seeking and receiving massive sums of money for body-worn cameras.

“I am all for body cameras,” says Rockford, Illinois, Police Chief Dan O’Shea. “Across the country, body cameras and in-car camera videos overwhelmingly, and the vast majority of the time, actually work in the police officer’s favor to verify or clear them or identify training needs.”

In Los Angeles County, the board of supervisors recently allotted $35 million for body cameras as the sheriff’s office plans to implement the tech for the first time. Their colleagues in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) started using body cameras in 2015, but the jury is still out as to whether it has made a difference. Officer-involved shootings are on the decline, but are still happening more than they do in other large U.S. cities. Furthermore, other uses of officer force are on the rise, including the use of supposed “non-lethal ammunition.” Meanwhile, analysis shows that the LAPD continues to harass Black and Latinx people at a higher rate than white people. That consistent pattern of harassment is a key reason Steppling is not optimistic that more body cameras will lead to less police brutality in Los Angeles.

“Body cams are not controlled by any civic entity or independent body with oversight,” he says. “In order for [cameras] to potentially start to be a good thing, law enforcement should have to pay for them out of their already existing budget, and the control should not lie with police. Everyone should have access to that footage to create more public accountability.”

The research that has taken place since 2014 shows that body cameras are consistently effective at reducing at least one thing: complaints. In the Urban Institute’s Milwaukee study, for instance, Lawrence and his colleagues found that when civilians contact the police department to file a complaint, they are handed a pamphlet that says that they could be charged with a crime if their complaint is false. A study of the Phoenix Police Department found that body cameras led to a higher number of complaints resolved in the officers’ favor.

“That law was in place before [body-worn cameras] existed,” Lawrence says, “but now, with cameras, sergeants will say ‘Give us the name and the date,’ and they can go check out the footage right there. We haven’t directly studied this, but the fact that there is video footage may be making community members more reluctant. What that comes down to is a notion of trust: Can you trust the police?”

Additionally, in a series of studies analyzed by the National Institute of Justice, researchers discovered that body cameras may lead to more “efficiency,” but not for the public.

“The studies found that the use of body-worn cameras led to increases in [civilian] arrests, prosecutions, and guilty pleas,” the analysis reads.

For cameras to serve the public, advocates say the footage would have to be readily available. In many states, they’re not. North Carolina has rigid laws in place adding roadblocks to footage access, and elsewhere, many departments refuse to release body camera footage even after a cell phone camera captures evidence of misconduct.

In Brandon Roberts’s home state of Delaware, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki is pushing for body camera funding despite claims by the city’s police chief that the cameras are too expensive. But Roberts’s fiancée is still waiting to see the footage of his death.

Erica Jones told local reporters that she had to struggle through her second pregnancy without Roberts. There were times when she wanted to give up, and she was often overwhelmed by the loss of her fiancé and the father of her children. Yet Jones has persevered. Even as the two officers involved have returned to the line of duty, she has kept calling for the police department to release the video and show the world what happened that night in January.

“They were afraid of him because of the color of his skin,” Jones says. “They know what they did was wrong and they’re trying to cover it up.”

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