Will Police Body Cams Change Anything?

December 23, 2014

In recent months, it seems like a classic black American nightmare has been put on a feedback loop.

With every acquittal of an accused killer cop, with every failure to indict on brutality charges, with every fruitless investigation into anti-black police violence, the country reminds us over and again of both its cowardice and its callousness in the face of its ignominious racial history.

Darren Wilson won’t stand trial for the execution of teenager Michael Brown. The New York City police officer who choked Eric Garner to death in broad daylight won’t face charges. The Saginaw cops who sprayed Milton Hall, a mentally ill homeless man, with a shower of bullets were exonerated by both local prosecutors and the feds. After four years of a judicial charade, the Detroit police officer who shot to death 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones as slept in her home walked away scot free.

The nightmare, as these and hundreds of other cases remind us, is all too real.

The upshot is that these shocking miscarriages of justice have begun to galvanize people of conscience nationwide. Increasingly, Americans are coming to see for themselves the uneasy, abusive and often deadly relationship black and brown people have historically maintained with the police. And people want to make change.

But even as we take steps to address the wanton police killings of black people, even as we seek effective reforms, we need to be careful not to try to take on a nightmare with a pipe dream. We are going to have to confront some grave, unsettling realities about the problem – and about who we really are as a nation – before we can develop the real, systemic solutions to police violence and abuse.

Which brings me to the issue of body cams.

Few ideas have gained as much traction in recent weeks as the notion of putting portable cameras on working cops. While the idea raises worthwhile concerns about privacy, some of the most vocal proponents of law-enforcement reform have settled on body cams as a good first step toward change. The reasoning is simple and seemingly sound: If officers know they are being recorded, they are more inclined to behave properly.

Problem is, this often isn’t true.

Garner’s death was captured on cellphone video. The slaying of Milton Hall was captured by private citizens’ cameraphones and by a police dashboard camera. We’ve seen footage of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers several weeks ago. We’ve seen the clip of John Crawford being shot to death in Dayton, Ohio, as he stood in a Wal-mart with a toy gun.

Whether it’s through eyewitness testimony, DNA, ballistics or videotape – we have never suffered from lack of proof that racist cops are wantonly and unjustly taking black lives. But until we begin to value black life enough to make those cops pay for their crimes, all the evidence in the world won’t matter.

Let’s not fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So while I do favor body cams for police officers, I submit that true reform will come only after this nation decides that we will no longer stomach the brazen murder of black men, women and children by armed agents of the state. Reform isn’t about outfitting cops with fancy gadgets—but about accountability and severe punishment for those who engage in racist abuses of their authority.

The problem isn’t that we’ve lacked opportunity to view for ourselves the racist violence that cops visit on black people. We’ve borne witness to state-sanctioned assaults on black life since this country was founded.

The problem is that, as a nation, we’ve too often chosen to be willfully blind to the humanity of those abuse victims.

And we’ve too often chosen to look the other way.

By Eli Day, Civil Liberties Fellow

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