Politics across US cities this year have been marked by a growing tension between police and the citizens they’re there to protect. Police killings of unarmed black men – Michael Garner in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City – and the officers’ later exoneration by grand juries have convinced many that officers aren’t held responsible for their actions. Meanwhile, solidarity protests across US cities have convinced lawmakers that something needs to change.
President Obama’s recommendations for a new and improved police force, outlined in an announcement last week, essentially boil down to “keep things the same, but give officers more training”. His only concrete proposal is for $75m to be spent on police body cameras, which would record police officers in action: that, so the thinking goes, help provide evidence in disputes between police officers and civilians. Over 145,000 people have signed a White House petition to enforce a "Mike Brown Law", in which all officers would be required to wear the cameras.
But in forces like New York’s, where the Commissioner promised yesterday to “re-train members in nonviolent ways of making arrests” (Reuters), will these cameras actually succeed in restoring public faith?
Officers can turn them on and off
Fusion, a US journalistic start-up, surveyed data from five US cities where body cameras have been trialled, and the results are, well, really depressing. They found repeated cases where cameras were turned off when police shot and killed civilians.
In Albuquerque, for example, an officer shot and killed 19-year old Mary Hawkes, but his camera was not turned on. The officer was later fired for turning off his camera at least four times while interacting with the public.
A separate study from the US Department of Justice found that in New Orleans, between January and May this year, cameras were turned off during 60 per cent of incidents in which officers used force.
Source: Office of the Consent Decree Monitor.
It’s up to individual forces whether they make the use of the cameras compulsory (though it renders them pretty pointless if they don’t). The Justice department, in its recommendations for implementing a body-worn camera program, states:
As a general recording policy, officers should be required to activate their body-worn cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters and activities that occur while the officer is on duty.
They’re marketed as a way for officers to prove their own innocence
VieVu, the main manufacturer of body cameras, has this image on its website:
In this advertisement, at least, the emphasis is on cops designing and using the technology to prove their own point after an incident. The cameras are not being marketed as a tool for their police force or an independent body to check they’re doing their job properly.
Pictures don’t always speak louder than words
In the case of Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold during an arrest, the incident was recorded on a cellphone by a bystander – but footage of the unarmed man in a chokehold didn’t sway the grand jury. If, as this incident implies, juries and police forces expect extreme force to be used during arrests (even when dealing with unarmed suspects), then perhaps video evidence won't make any difference to their verdicts.
Youtube screenshot from a cellphone recording of Eric Garner’s arrest.
They could reduce the use of force
Criminologists at the University of Cambridge conducted a study in California which found that officers not wearing the cameras were twice as likely to use force as officers who were. They also found that there was a decrease in citizen complaints across the force.
Yet Barak Ariel, one of the study’s authors, argues that this isn’t enough evidence to justify widespread usage. He told The Atlantic that, while the technology is “promising”, “we don’t know that it’s working”. He pointed out that it’s unclear how the cameras effect behaviour: they could be reducing civilian force, police force, or both.
Funding for the cameras will depend on a vote in Congress, so it's still unclear whether Obama’s scheme will come to fruition. Either way, it looks like the US will need more than a few cameras to patch up relations between police and the public.