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Why Body Cameras Alone Won’t Solve Our Police Abuse Problem

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"Why Body Cameras Alone Won’t Solve Our Police Abuse Problem"

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Man faces police in the midst of protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the police shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

A man faces police in the midst of protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the police shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Tensions between protesters and police escalated since 18 year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri over a week ago. Police use of military-like force against peaceful protesters and journalists, coupled with a reluctance to release the name of the shooting officer or details of events that led to the shooting, have protesters and activists demanding for extensive changes to police protocol. Chief among those changes are mandating all police officers wear body cameras so there’s clear, objective footage of every police encounter with civilians.

Activists, civilians, journalists, and government officials have begun pushing for widespread use of police body cameras as a way to curb police brutality.

Several petitions have surfaced since Brown’s death, calling for police departments to adopt wearable cameras. St. Louis, Missouri native Kirk Siefert launched a petition to require body cameras because “We need to be able to police the police,” he wrote.

Missouri State Rep. Courtney Curtis (D) also told NBC Nightly News that “the audio or video would have potentially provided that or at least have given us a starting point, you know, to provide the rest of the information [on exactly what happened before the shooting].”

A California mayor also voiced support of body cams in response to Brown’s shooting. In a letter to the Hawthorne city council, Mayor Chris Brown said he was “simply not willing to gamble with a single life, or the wrongful accusation of upstanding officers,” Time magazine reported.

Those calls were amplified Monday when The Wall Street Journal reported how successful police wearable cameras have been in California. The report spotlighted how their use in Rialto, California led to a 60 percent drop in police force with complaints against police officers falling by almost 90 percent. The only obstacle preventing every police department from making cameras standard is cost — $300 to $400 per unit.

Despite a hefty price tag more than 1,000 out of 18,000 U.S. police departments across the country, including New York City, are starting to wear body cams, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and a recent NBC report.

“Wearable police cameras are not the panacea, but they sure will make a huge difference,” Shaun King, Los Angeles-based digital activist and writer who spearheaded a petition for implementing federal laws for police misconduct, told ThinkProgress. “It’s a form of accountability.”

Research has shown that police tend to be on their best behavior when they know they’re being watched. According to a study from the California police department, which adopted body cams in 2012, complaints against officers dropped when cams were used, usually affixed to uniform lapels or sunglasses.

Video captured by media cameras and citizens recording events with smartphone cameras in Ferguson and elsewhere has been essential to documenting the protests and police response. Bystanders recorded a New York police officer using the banned choke hold maneuver that caused Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York last month. Footage of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was handcuffed and on the ground when a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot him in 2009, proved that lethal force was unnecessary.

“If Officer Darren Wilson was wearing a police camera, we’d all be asking for that footage,” King said.

But just like with other law enforcement tools, videos from police cams can be subject to abuse if it’s not carefully mitigated during police reform. “On the one hand it’s good; they know people are watching. [Body cams] could prevent abuses, allow court to handle factual disputes and depict actual events,” Hanni Fakuory, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, told ThinkProgress. And video footage of police misconduct doesn’t always yield justice.

Justice Not Guaranteed

Police and witnesses’ video recordings haven’t consistently led to convictions in the past, and even if the evidence is damning, police accused of violating citizens’ rights are rarely prosecuted. In 2013, a Chicago police officer wasn’t even charged for fatally shooting an unarmed man, despite video footage showing the officer standing over the victim’s body. Earlier this year, a jury acquitted two former police officers caught on tape beating a schizophrenic homeless man to death in 2012.

Even videos of police abuse that have gone viral have sparked little legal action. No charges have been brought against the officers involved in Garner’s death even after the medical examiner ruled it a homicide. The officer who shot and killed Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder.

Police departments have adopted body cams, and other recording methods, in an effort to monitor officers’ behavior. But in some instances, police have rejected the technology. Los Angeles police officers were caught disabling voice recording equipment such as antennas on about 50 squad cars, most of which were used to patrol the low-income communities, densely populated with people of color. Even when police body cams are used, departments frequently deny requests for video footage, The Atlantic’s City Lab reported.

Potential For Abuse

When it comes to technology, “there’s the potential for abuse,” Fakuaory said. Law enforcement’s history with technology tends to follow the same pattern: When “they get new tools, they use them aggressively especially as these things get smaller and easier to use.”

That’s what happened when police forces began using tasers and mace. Those methods were introduced as a non-lethal or less lethal way to subdue suspects, and have become prone to abuse — proving injurious and sometimes lethal. In New York, over 12 people died taser use in 2011 out of nearly 900 documented incidents, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Tasers or stun guns immobilize subjects with up to 50,000 volts of electricity and have been shown to be lethal if they are deployed on a subject’s chest. An NYCLU investigation found that the New York Police Department inappropriately used tasers in 60 percent of the reported incidents. Experts recommend tasers be used when the officer can document a risk of personal injury or active aggression. Fifteen percent of stun gun reports were for people who were already restrained or handcuffed.

As lapel and body cams become a staple on police forces, questions arise about how the technology should be used. Instead of deterring bad behavior, police officers could use them for racially profiling or unwarranted surveillance: “One of the issues is going to be that we all kind of take for granted that what we do in public can be seen by others,” Fakuory said.

Police’s ability to survey someone is limited to their eyesight. But wearable cameras enhance that ability, making it easier for law enforcement zoom in on what a person is doing on their phone while standing on street corner. “That’s where the real worry is, they’re definitely going to expand its use,” Fakuory warned.

As an example of police’s increased reliance on surveillance, Fakuory likened a police force fully equipped with wearable cameras to Houston’s use of nearly 1,000 stationary ones that overlook most of the downtown area and places such as stadiums and the convention center to ensure adequate police presence.

If you pair large scale camera surveillance with facial recognition technology federal agencies already use, there’s a huge potential for privacy and other civil liberties violations, Fakuory said. The person next to you in the mall sees you but doesn’t know who you are but a passerby or even the police with Google Glass can quickly pull up your social network profiles. That could potentially lead police to make snap judgments about who a person is or what their motives are.

Another problem will be how the police store the data they collect — and for how long. “We don’t want to see them hold onto data longer than needed,” or use it to cherry pick suspects based on race or political affiliation, he said.

Finding Balance

The key is to find a balance between and establish uniform rules of use that limit what police can and can’t legally do. To be effective, body cam policies have to limit what police do with the mass of data showing whether or not a crime was committed.

Because police departments would ultimately be in charge of storing, analyzing and disseminating body cam footage, concerns arise over whether if the footage would be disclosed and left untampered. Just as physical evidence such as articles of clothing or laboratory test results can be lost or damaged, police collusion to protect a fellow officer or a department’s integrity could lead to video proof of violent police encounters being erased, altered or simply withheld if left unchecked.

Citizens and activists across the country have led efforts to establish police oversight boards, which would serve as watchdog entities. Over 120 such boards and agencies exist in jurisdictions across the U.S. with varying degrees of power, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. That power ranges from tracking and resolving police complaints, like an agency in Washington, DC to overseeing the local police department, like the Los Angeles City Inspector General, which has the power to conduct its own investigations into police misconduct.

But many of the existing oversight agencies lack teeth to bring charges against officers. In Newark, New Jersey, local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have been unsuccessfully lobbying for an oversight board with the power to subpoena and discipline officers who have violated citizens’ rights or department policies. The ACLU also supports police officers wearing body cams to better protect citizens’ rights.

The lack of third-party oversight of police conduct has also led to false convictions because police manufactured or withheld proof of a suspect’s innocence. In 2013, there were 87 known cases overturned largely due to false testimonies or wrongful accusation, and official misconduct, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Despite the risk for abuse, making police cameras part of standard procedure could be a positive step to keep police killings down. Experts say that if Wilson, the previously unnamed cop responsible for Brown’s death, were wearing a body cam, Brown would still be alive. Instead of pulling the trigger, Wilson may have hesitated knowing that his actions were being recorded.

That sentiment is spreading. New York City’s police department, which launched its body camera program in 2013, is currently under pressure from activists to expand it after Garner’s death last month. The city is currently the largest municipality with the technology.

Police tampering with footage is a legitimate concern, but for body cams to be effective, policies have to preempt the temptation. “Software could be easily developed that prevents deletion, altering, reporting,” King, who is also a web developer, suggested. “But misconduct would have to proactively anticipated in the rollout of such technology.” Also, having an independent third-party manage police footage could prevent it from being compromised, he added.

“No matter what, we need to get a start on implementing [mandatory police cameras]. It will have problems, but having it is always better than not having it,” King said.

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