The arrest and death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore by the hands of the police outraged the country, and mobilized thousands of citizens to protest against police brutality. The majority of the protests were peaceful and unnoticed, until some individuals became violent and damaged property. The media swarmed into Baltimore, though the direct and indirect causes of the rioting were neglected. Instead, the media pointed their cameras at the fires, and characterized a movement of citizens mobilizing to address serious grievances in their communities as looters and thugs. While the national attention could have been an directed to illuminate the economic and political context in the American city in general, the coverage provided little but rubbernecking and thinly-veiled racism. When the fires were put out the coverage stopped, but the problems in Baltimore remain.
A cellphone video of a South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back prompted national outrage and criminal charges against the officer. The event has increased the calls for police to wear body cameras in their interactions with the public.
But would a police-worn body camera have held Officer Michael Slager accountable for killing Walter Scott?
There is a growing movement to outfit police officers with body cameras that can record their interactions with the public. Calls have been made for the cameras by the parents of Michael Brown, and by many police chiefs across the nation. President Obama proposed getting 50,000 body cameras to police stations nationwide.
The White House quotes a study conducted in Rialto, California, that found a 60 percent drop in use of force and an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers after the introduction of body cameras. In San Diego, according to a report released by the city, complaints and use of personal body force incidents decreased by about 40 percent and 45 percent.
However, a recent Fusion investigation found that in two of the five cities studied, the introduction of police-worn body cameras showed little effect. Fusion also found that the footage is generally used for the benefit of the police officer, rather than citizens issuing complaints.
This surprised me at first, but then I took at a look at the companies that make these cameras. Benefiting cops is certainly how the body cameras are marketed.
The companies that make the cameras pitch them as tools to protect police officers against erroneous claims. In marketing materials for body cameras made by Taser, the company writes, “When your honor is on the line, don’t let a 3-second cell phone clip define you.”
With the cameras and the rules that govern their use in control of the police, you see many of the problems that you might expect. Officers almost always control the record button, so there is no guarantee that any incident will even be caught on footage. If it is recorded, problems often still arise. Radley Balko, a journalist who covers civil liberties and criminal justice, highlighted how San Diego Police Department will not release any footage it considers to be part of an investigation. And too often, the footage is claimed to be unavailable.
Balko wrote in August: “There have been too many examples in which an officer has “forgotten” to turn on a camera, a camera has coincidentally malfunctioned at a critical time, or video has gone missing.”
For these reasons, a body camera video of the killing of Walter Scott would likely have been kept out of the public’s eye. Body cameras have definite potential to create a record of critical interactions between police and citizens. But until there are strict rules governing their use and impartial oversight of the recorded footage, using cell phone cameras might still be necessary for citizens to hold police accountable.
Over the past three decades, local police forces have seen a tremendous influx of military weaponry and technology. Investigative reporter Radley Balko writes that starting in 1997, the “1033 Program” has allowed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military-grade weaponry to be transferred to local civic police stations. This inventory includes tanks, grenade launchers, and .50 caliber machine guns that are largely impractical for police work. The tactics have also become militarized. Criminologist Peter Kraska estimates that annual deployments of SWAT and paramilitary police have surged from 3,000 in 1980 to around 45,000 in present times. This increase appears to be a result of mission creep — while originally conceived to be used in the most extreme scenarios such as hostage situations and bank robberies, Kraska points out that the majority of SWAT raids are now centered on drug-related crimes, with authorities often breaking down doors during pre-dawn hours to serve warrants. While these forces have an important role in dealing with the most volatile situations, the huge surge in the use of SWAT teams and military-grade weapons for regular police work should raise concerns about the impact of militarization on the relationship between law enforcement and civilians.
If singling out anti-tax Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny on their tax-exempt applications is called oppression, I wonder what the treatment of Occupy protesters is called.