President Obama announced a proposal to spend $75 million on body cameras for 50,000 police officers nationwide. He framed this as a solution to widespread distrust of law enforcement in minority communities. But the failure to indict the New York City police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner — an incident vividly captured on video — proves just how ineffective Obama’s plan would be in curbing epidemic police violence and racial profiling. The officers who forcibly pushed Garner’s body into the ground knew a witness was recording the incident, and at least one of them spoke to the videographer. And yet the police were undeterred. They continued using the banned chokehold on Garner as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe!”
In the Garner case, the cellphone video provided a far superior view of what happened than a body camera would have, and still police suffered no criminal consequences. It’s not the first time this has happened. In September, an Ohio grand jury failed to indict the police officers who killed John Crawford in a Walmart, where he had picked up an air rifle from the shelf. And earlier this year, a man in Oklahoma stopped breathing in a movie theater parking lot after several police officers forced him to the ground when he refused to hand over his ID. His wife filmed the fatal incident on her cellphone, but the district attorney said the officers’ actions were justified. Officers are rarely charged in these kinds of incidents, whether there’s video evidence or not. During the seven years ending in 2011, just 41 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter after shootings, according to FBI statistics compiled by The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, more than 2,700 homicides by law enforcement were deemed justified. Few entities are given so much authority with so little accountability.
Ultimately, body cameras could do more harm than good to the cause of protecting citizens from police violence. Pinned to officers’ chests, these cameras face outward — capturing the behavior of citizens, but not of the police. Their footage provides a one-sided view of the interaction, allowing outsiders to scrutinize the citizens’ every move, but leaving them blind to the police officers’ behavior. For instance, while protesting in Ferguson, I witnessed police pointing guns at nonviolent citizens. Media cameras and citizens’ cellphones captured some of that behavior, as well. But police body cameras only would have shown citizens’ angry reactions out of context, missing the officers’ provocation. Body cameras do much more to capture evidence against citizens than to protect them.
Lax laws prevent us from holding police accountable, not a lack of evidence. But the presence of police body cameras will simply lull the country into believing that we can solve the problems of racial profiling and police violence without holding police accountable for their actions. In an environment where state excessive force laws make criminal conviction of police officers for murder almost impossible, a police officer literally has nothing to lose by killing unarmed black men. Even in civil suits, officers are never personally financially responsible for paying for damages — state and local governments cover it for them. For the officers involved, there is a minuscule chance of either serving time in jail or paying a dime in damages, regardless of whether the incident is recorded. This is the textbook definition of impunity.
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In addition to their ineffectiveness, the information captured by body cameras raises serious questions about citizen privacy. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and many jurisdictions prohibit recording of a person without his or her consent if the surveillance takes place in an area of expected privacy. Police enter areas of this type every day. Also, the recent scandals surrounding NSA surveillance of telephone and Internet activity has already demonstrated the nation’s uneasiness about the proliferation of digital surveillance capacity among law enforcement under the guise of keeping us safe. We have yet to fully explore the Fourth Amendment ramifications of this type of constant recording of citizens by police officers. The big brother state stands in direct contradiction to the freedom from unreasonable searches that the Fourth Amendment guarantees us.
President Obama isn’t alone in his misguided approach. Across the country, local police departments are considering the use of body cameras and perpetuating the view that this will end police brutality. But if this country wants to get serious about this problem, we should do what government always does when it wants to alter behavior on a systematic level — impose financial penalties. For example, the proposed End Racial Profiling Act would mandate policies that prohibit racial profiling by federal law enforcement and by state and local agencies that receive federal funding. That’s a start on the racial profiling side. Another proposal that has gained traction locally is the creation of mandatory personal liability insurance for police officers. Even if cities decide to pay the base premiums for police, the increased premiums for officers prone to violence and brutality would provide a measure of accountability. That’s a start on the police violence side. In the absence of accountability, financial or criminal, we can expect no changes in police behavior. The roots of the problem are too deep. For real change to happen, it has to cost them something.
Justin Hansford is a human rights activist and law professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is a graduate of Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center.