By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The clamor for police departments to fully outfit all their officers with body cameras was loud long before Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown. But when Wilson shot Brown, some said that if he had been wearing a body cam, the shooting may not have happened. The presumption is that Wilson would have known that his action in stopping Brown would have been video documented and therefore that would have made him far less inclined to be quick on the trigger knowing there was this kind of scrutiny.
Maybe yes, maybe no. There’s far more to the use of body cams than just simply clamping one on the lapel or collar of an officer. There’s the matter of what a body cam can and can’t do, or even should be expected to do. Body cams are not the panacea that will end real or alleged police misconduct. Contrary to widespread belief, only a minuscule number of police-citizen encounters involve the use of force. Only a small fraction of police calls involve felony stops or arrests.
Most of the encounters are garden variety stuff such as mediating disputes, providing referrals, and assisting the injured, or ill, or accident investigation. In short, many of the encounters are quasi social service work. A body camera has little practical value here. Its main function then is to document encounters that involve the potential use of force. That is to provide a neutral, objective picture of what went on during that encounter, to avoid the almost certain he said, she said about how and why a use of force tragedy happened. But that may not be the case. In the state trial of the four LAPD officers who beat black motorist Rodney King in 1991, their defense attorneys skillfully pounded away that the video of the beating did not give the complete picture of what happened.
They successfully argued that the camera didn’t show King’s alleged aggressive behavior toward the officers before the beating commenced, and that the amount of force that they used was reasonable and necessary to subdue the supposedly combative King. The jury in the state trial bought their argument and they were acquitted of most charges. In the trial of other police officers, since the King case, who have been charged with the over use of force, in which there was videotape evidence that appeared to show the officer did commit the acts, their defense attorneys have also argued that the camera captured only part of the picture, not the whole picture. A body camera has a similar hitch, in this case, technologically. It records only what’s in front of the officer. If the officer turns his body, is walking or running, and there are different angles in the encounter, it won’t give an accurate picture of the full encounter.
Whether Brown would not have been killed if Wilson had worn a body cam, assuming it was turned on, will never be known. However, what is known is that the wearing of body cameras may not be a fail-safe instrument for improving police work. Studies have found that a body cam may serve as an impediment to some crime victims relating honestly and objectively what precipitated the assault, robbery, or other violent act to them. This could skew the officer’s report and the investigation in the case.
Then there’s the question of will the use of body cameras make officers cross all their “T”s and dot all their “I” s in doing their job. In a study of Mesa, Arizona police, 50 officers wore body cams, 50 officers didn’t. The officers that didn’t wear them made significantly more stop-and-frisk searches than the officers that wore them. But the officers that wore them made significantly more traffic stops and wrote more tickets. In both cases, the officers thought more carefully about their jobs, and what the consequences of their actions would be, whether they were being recorded or not.
Police departments that are experimenting with the use of body cams have not said when or even if all their officers will be equipped with body cameras. Nor have they said how the tapes of the actions of the officers that are equipped with them will be used. The real test though will come when there is a controversial use of force encounter and the officer involved in the encounter is wearing the body cam. All the questions will come into play: Did it show all? Was there more? How will the action be interpreted? And who will decide on the merit of the interpretation? Police officials everywhere publicly pledge accountability and transparency, and certainly do not want the nightmare of having to endlessly defend their departments from the charges of excessive force. There’s only way to find out if that can happen with body cams and that’s for police departments to fully outfit their officers with them and then we’ll see. In the meantime, the debate will continue over whether a cam would have spared Brown.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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