Rialto, CA Police on patrol. (Public Domain)
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown—a black teenager—by Darren Wilson, a white on-duty police officer in Ferguson, MO, many social activists and reformers have honed in on equipping police with cameras as a preventative solution.
I first want to say that if folks, especially in the black community, will feel safer being policed by cops with cameras, then I understand and readily admit that my privilege and general life experience may be influencing my perspective. That said, I think it’s important to take a close look at this proposed solution, especially given that there are other options competing for urgency.
It’s important to point out that police departments have been equipping themselves with mounted car and body cameras before Ferguson and without the prodding of social reformers. The entire Rialto, CA Police Department has been outfitted with body-mounted cameras, and departments in New Carrollton and Largo, MD are doing limited trial runs. According to a Wall Street Journal article, use of force by Rialto PD declined 60 percent and citizen complaints against police declined 88 percent the year after the camera policy was rolled out.
The stock price of Taser International Inc. is listed later in the article, and many WSJ readers are watching what’s happening in Ferguson with a keen eye for investment opportunities. If all, or at least some, of this social unrest can be channeled into police departments being “forced” into purchasing body-mounted cameras, then corporations and investors will make handsome profits, already bloated police budgets will swell further, and politicians can appease angry constituents with tangible legislation.
It would be wrong, however, to ignore the stats coming out of places like Rialto. Although we don’t have access to the data, and so can’t know if it’s been manipulated, what other parallel policies were put in place during the same time period, or how local dynamics within the community shape relations with the police, let’s take these numbers at face value. The use of force dropping by 60 percent is good.
Citizen complaints against police dropping by 88 percent, though more ambiguous, is also probably a good thing. But it’s important to ask why, why did this likely occur? The thinking goes that once both parties in a policing situation are being observed by a third party, then the behavior of both the police and the civilians will improve. The third-party observer theory has been confirmed by psychological research.
And yet there is nothing to suggest that people filming police with our own cameras would not have the same effect (acknowledging that many of the most at risk people, such as the houseless, often to not have cellphone cameras). Why dump money at police departments to purchase a tool from corporations that many of us already possess? Why not crowd source our own videos of police behavior? Copblock.org already has endorsed a number of apps that do just that.
Third party observers, also known as third party punishers, also cut both ways. If police are less aggressive on camera, so too are the rest of us. As Chief Rice of the New Carrolton Police Department points out, “People tend to behave better when they are on video. We’re not getting as much combativeness from people. In that respect, [the body-mounted cameras] have worked very well.”
Resistance to police, who remain an occupying force, with or without cameras, apparently diminishes when civilians are recorded.
So we’re talking about more complacency on the part of the community as police officers continue their structurally violent work, even if they may be more hesitant to use physical violence (which of course shouldn’t be minimized). We’re also talking about less aggressive civil disobedience and less participation by at-risk folks, because the likelihood of getting caught will increase. A seemingly logical police accountability reform like body-mounted cameras could actually make the activism integral to deep social justice reform more inaccessible and vulnerable to retaliation.
Further, these cameras cost New Carrollton $600 a pop and Laurel $2,000 each. Taser International Inc, which outfitted the Rialto PD, has driven the price down to $300-$400 per camera. To outfit the police in Baltimore, MD, where I live, it would cost about $1,400,000 upfront ($350 x 4,000, the number of officers in the Baltimore Police Department), plus the significant yearly costs of managing all that data.
That’s a quick way to swell the budget of the most reactionary element of local government and fatten the wallets of camera vendors who are often part of the larger military-industrial complex, all with the blessing of the ACLU and many social activists.
We were told the same story when Taser first introduced its eponymous product, or when dashboard cameras were installed in police cruisers in the 1990s. We haven’t seen an end to police brutality due to these technological upgrades, and we shouldn’t expect to if body-mounted cameras become standardized.
Beyond increased surveillance and swollen police department budgets, there is a serious trust issue. Police have been planting evidence as long as there have been police. And cops have been protecting cops who plant evidence since day one. There’s no reason why that trend would not extend to tampering with footage, or using it to arrest people for a “crime” police would not have been aware of otherwise.
Technology is a tool, a means, but if the ends of the people using that technology haven’t changed, why should we expect their behavior to just because they’re using cameras now? Besides, they can just turn the cameras off, like they did when tear gassed and shot us with rubber bullets in Oakland during Occupy, or when a New Orleans Police Officer Lewis shot Armand Bennet on August 15th.
Lastly, Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who oversees a PD that frequently resorts to the use of deadly force, made a valid point when asked about police cameras. She raised the situation of police entering the home of a domestic or sexual abuse survivor. That person’s right to privacy is violated in a new and troubling way when rolling cameras are introduced without consent.
Apart from all this, I don’t mean to suggest that cameras can’t be one of many demands being pushed in this critical moment, but that it’s problematic for this demand to take central stage. Since numerous Police Departments already were implementing this policy on their own without popular pressure, the urgency of this demand seems muted compared to others.
My thinking is we should focus on the immediate demand of prosecution and conviction of Wilson for murder, the medium-term goal of lowering the threshold for prosecuting on-duty officers (currently, if an officer acts in a way another average officer would have acted, they cannot be prosecuted, a legal protection know as qualified immunity), and the long-term community building work (including the proliferation of responsible third party punishers) that will make the excuses police enlist to justify the use of force seem even more absurd to even more people.
Convicting Officer Wilson will be difficult, though not impossible, more so because the grand jury empanelled by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch is 75 percent white. Weakening qualified immunity, though also difficult, will increase police officers’ legal responsibility for their actions. And by doing the community building work in our own communities, specifically developing environments where responsible third party punishers are the norm, we simultaneously address issues of crime and policing.
Film the police, but don’t buy them new cameras.
Owen is an activist and ESOL teacher. He lives in and loves Baltimore.