Cameras Won’t Solve Police Brutality

7 minute read

This was originally written for the Students for Liberty blogging series, posted here on 10.7.14
Addendum 12.3.14:

In light of the Grand Jury decisions regarding Mike Brown and especially Eric Garner, who's death was caught entirely on recording, it should become more evident to Americans that this country has a severe problem within its police force. When Grand Juries decide in favor towards police with a virtually flawless success rate, it comes as no surprise how police walk away from any liability or oversight. There have been recent calls for increased federal oversight, but we should be skeptical of promises of change. Despite the huge amounts of negative publicity police departments are receiving after events in Ferguson and NYC, innocent Americans continue to lose their lives at the hands of the police. I went through the trouble of making a small list for a few prominent cases:

Tamir Rice, 12 years old. Source: released family photo

  • the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice on November 22nd (who was shot within 2 seconds of police showing up to the park he was seen playing with his BB gun. Video)

Dillon Taylor, 20 years old . Source: released home photo

  • the August 11th killing of Dillon Tayler (a white 20 year old male who didn't take his hands out of his pockets quick enough, and then was shot when he did. The officer was wearing his body camera. Video)

Vonderrit Myers, 18 years old. Source: released home photo

  • the October 9th killing of Vonderrit Myers (a black 18 year old who lived in St. Louis, was chased by an off duty officer and then shot 9 times while fleeing)

Samantha Ramsey, 19 years old. Source: released home photo

  • the April 26th murder of Samantha Ramsey ( a 19 year old white female, she was escaping a party being busted by officers in Boone County, Kentucky)

[caption id="attachment_686" align="aligncenter" width="274"]John Crawford, 22 years old, holding his son. Source: released home photo John Crawford, 22 years old, holding his son. Source: released home photo[/caption]

  • the August 5th shooting of John Crawford (a 22 year old black male, was in a Walmart carrying a toy gun when officers responded to a 911 call, shot him on the spot. Video)

[caption id="attachment_687" align="aligncenter" width="430"]Dontre Hamilton, age 31. Source: released home photo Dontre Hamilton, age 31. Source: released home photo[/caption]

  • the April 30th murder of Dontre Hamilton (A 31 year old schizophrenic, hewas loitering in a park in Milwaukee till police arrived and searched him, he resisted and was shot 14 times. Autopsy revealed shots were fired into his back while he was on the ground.)

These shootings most definitely disproportionately affect Blacks and the poor, but that is no longer the central problem at hand. America has a power problem, and near the core of this is the police. Over militarized and funded, the United States has effectively created a police force that acts as a domestic army that views the populace as a threat. Armed with military surplus from wars overseas and funded with money from the War on Drugs, we shouldn't be surprised that the police are acting like the army they've become. As Malcolm X put it himself, "the chickens are coming home to roost." With this in mind, Americans must keep pushing forward for real change in police oversight and liability. Hopefully we can stop more tragedies from occurring, the sooner, the better.

Original Article:

After the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, people all across the United States have been calling for a solution to the endemic of police brutality that has become second nature in local departments. Of these various proposals, from establishing a federal agency to overlook local departments to increasing diversity in departments, one stands apart.

Officer in LA wearing a body camera. Source: Damian Dovarganes/AP Officer in LA wearing a body camera. Source: Damian Dovarganes/AP[/caption]

Body cameras have been championed as a possible solution to police aggression, made possible by the rise of social media and handheld devices. These cameras are compact devices that can be easily attached to the chest, shoulder, or even glasses of an officer, and typically begin recording both audio and video whenever a large sound (like confronting a civilian) is picked up. Unlike other proposed solutions, the effectiveness of ‘body cams’ is backed by empirical data.  A recent study in Rialto, California has shown that when armed with body cameras, police used force 60% less, and overall complaints to the department decreased by 80%. So what’s the wait?

While body cameras hold potential, the reality is that these cameras would effectively increase the government’s ability to monitor and record civilians, which raises legitimate concerns over privacy and expanded state surveillance. Furthermore, there are several legal questions that will need to be fleshed out regarding the use of body cameras: Who keeps the data, where is it stored, who gets to see it, how long is it kept, and so forth. Beyond these questions, however, lies an even greater problem. Pursuing a policy like body cameras is a superficial approach to an entrenched problem, a symptomatic treatment to a very serious infection. It doesn’t matter how many cameras you throw at a department, it won’t change the fact that these departments are armed with LRADs, body armor, Bearcat armored vehicles, and all sorts of other military surplus. Body cameras do not change the fact that departments police less privileged neighborhoods as if they were war zones. Body cameras do not stop the proliferation of SWAT tactics and no knock raids used to deal warrants. Most of all, body cams do not stop the police from turning off their cameras when the time comes to kill or harm another civilian. As nice as body cameras sound, they are far from a panacea.

Police in riot gear in Ferguson on August 11th. Source: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

It should then not surprise us, then, that police departments are quick to advocate cameras as a solution. Body cams are good for police departments because they create the illusion that they’re taking steps to solve police brutality, a problem as old as prohibition.  Americans excel at reactionary politics and, to the average citizen, all is well now that departments are implementing their own body cam programs. There is no need to fix the racial profiling tactics used by departments, the disregard for private property from asset forfeiture practices, and the whole laundry list of other ‘unfortunate’ habits of police departments across the United States. ‘None of that matters anymore,’  says the news pundit and police chief. The police are to be trusted now that they’re on camera.

However, if solving the actual problem of police militarization and brutality sounds like something you would like to do, there are two major areas that must be given immediate attention. The War on Drugs and the War on Terror, have, unsurprisingly, resulted in a war on domestic soil. Both are tricky political situations that will not be going away any time soon, but they must be addressed if we hope to reform our police departments. The former, the War on Drugs, is something that can be given immediate attention. While the War on Terror is ‘farther away’ both politically and geographically, the War on Drugs is a campaign that touches every American life directly. This domestic policy is uniquely responsible for the booming prison populations, harassment of minorities, expanded gang growth, and police brutality. While the War on Terror may give officers their guns and armor, it is the War on Drugs that justifies the use of them. It is a war that turns the civilians that police are supposed to protect into potential criminals and drug dealers, and simultaneously gives ‘justification’ for the force and methods used by police.

Swat team in Cambridge. Source: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Additionally, the federal government provides funding to police departments based on drug related arrests, so the more people a department arrests, the more funding it is given. It is a perverse financial incentive that nonetheless works. Small time drug users then become prime targets for arrests, as do the more vulnerable sections of the community who don’t have the means to foot legal fees. It is these two factors combined that has created a new Jim Crow as minority populations, especially blacks, are targeted in order to increase department budgets. No number of camera-wearing police officers will fix this.

The War on Drugs is a vicious cycle that creates all sorts of unintended consequences on top of its complete failure. The events in Ferguson, Missouri were not an anomaly. Michael Brown’s murder was not a mere coincidence or random occurrence. Instead, he was merely another victim in the long stream of casualties created by the prejudiced and deadly War on Drugs. Four other black males had been killed by the police just prior and right after Brown’s murder. Sadly these incidents didn’t catch the same amount of attention that Brown’s murder did. I am doubtful that body cameras would have prevented their deaths, given the scope and entrenched nature of the problem.

If Americans truly want to solve the problems of police militarization and brutality, they should look to two of the largest government failures in US history: the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Putting little cameras on the watchmen will not make these wars go away. This is not to say having body cams are not a good idea, or that they wouldn’t overcome some of the problems of the status quo. I actually believe body cams can do a lot of good for the preservation of public safety and civil liberties, as do many other respectable organizations and individuals. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that anything short of ending the Wars on Drugs and Terror will solve police brutality in the United States.