What’s The Point Of Body Cams?

Uri Friedman talks to criminologist Barak Ariel about the impact of putting body cameras on officers:

The technology is “surely promising, but we don’t know that it’s working,” Ariel told me. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve drugs until they’ve been studied extensively, he explained, and governments should take a similar approach with body-worn cameras. It’s a solution that has yet to be proven.

Ariel should know. He’s currently researching the effects of body cameras on policing everywhere from Brazil to Ghana to Israel to Northern Ireland, and finding that some police departments (and police unions) love the idea and others hate it. Nearly all of these tests have yet to be completed, but Ariel recently co-authored a study on the practice in Rialto, California, where he found that police officers who weren’t wearing cameras were twice as likely to use force as those who were. During the 12-month experiment, the police department also saw a reduction in citizens’ complaints compared with previous years. The researchers concluded that the benefits of wearing cameras trumped the costs.

But Ariel insists that there isn’t enough evidence so far to generalize the finding and assert that body-worn cameras offer a net benefit to community policing.

Jason Koebler contends that “lack of indictment in the Garner case doesn’t fundamentally change the police body camera argument, and shouldn’t be used as an argument for or against body cameras one way or another”:

Body cameras are not a cure-all, and they don’t treat the underlying problem of police brutality or power tripping. But, well, they’re better than nothing, and they’re a good first step toward creating a culture where cops think before they act.

The main thrust of the argument behind police body cameras has never been the idea that video evidence can be used to convict a cop of murder in court or even that they can be used as evidence at all. Instead, body cameras create an environment where police intrinsically know they are being watched, that there’s at least the possibility that they’ll be held accountable for their actions.

Rebecca Leber spells out why video evidence often doesn’t make a difference:

Police still have wide leeway for using deadly force. Juries remain deferential to officers’ judgements of when to incapcitate a person or fire their weapons. As Amanda Taub has explained at Vox, “That means that to press criminal charges in a police shooting, the prosecutor has a heavy burden to overcome. The officer is likely to claim that he believed the suspect was a threat and made a split-second decision to use force. The jury is likely to believe him, even if his decision was a bad one.” At The Nation, Chase Madar pointed to the case of Kajieme Powell, John Crawford III, and Milton Hall, all of whom were shot by police and all of whose deaths were filmed on camera. None resulted in charges.

In other words, body cams can helpbut they still don’t entirely fix police abuse. Juries still show officers extreme deference, even when police violence gets caught on tape.

Matthew Pratt Guterl reflects on the countless videos of police brutality circulating online:

[T]hese videos do more than simply provide convincing evidence for lawsuits. They show the willful resistance and inventiveness of poor and racially marginalized Americans. In settings that are emotionally charged and dangerous, ordinary people are acting as interpreters and recorders of historyof police brutality racism, yes, but also of our cops’ post-9/11 militarization and depersonalized policing strategies. There are other cameras out theredispassionate security cameras and dashboard cams, and body cameras showing the police officer’s perspectivebut witness videos are as close as we, the viewers, get to the victim’s perspective. While the cameras stop nothing, they do allow us to see.