Police Cameras Won't Change Hearts and Minds in Ferguson

The city of Ferguson should get press cameras back into the air and name badges back onto officers. 

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Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

The City of Ferguson released a statement today calling for "nighttime quiet and reconciliation," pleading with residents to stay in their homes tonight. Although leaders have called for calm since the start of the standoff between police and demonstrators over the police shooting of Michael Brown, this time, the city offered some concessions. Too bad they don't go far enough.

One item in particular highlights the problem with Ferguson's approach. Among some of the more long-term commitments, like a pledge to increase diversity in Ferguson law enforcement and to persuade officers to settle in Ferguson proper, the City of Ferguson offered a commitment to "raise funds and secure dash and vest cams for our patrol cars."

That's something that the City of Ferguson could accomplish—if not right away, then reasonably quickly. Whether anyone would ever see the video footage recorded by police cameras is another question, as Sara Libby explains. A survey of the available research conducted by the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center shows that most of the claims about police body cameras have not been fully tested, while many of the consequences for law-enforcement agencies, labor unions, and communities have not even been explored. 

But city leaders have other, better, more immediate options if they truly want to "demonstrate the transparency of our city departments." Namely, leaders in Ferguson should require officers to put their badges back on their vests and ask the Federal Aviation Administration to put the news choppers back in the air. 

There's no arguing the point that police operating anonymously in Ferguson have any solid legal or moral ground to stand on. By removing their name badges, officers appear to be taking precautions to safeguard themselves from the scrutiny, oversight, and lawsuits that follow from the unlawful arrests of journalists and assaults on demonstrators. No, not "appear to be"—they are flagrantly shielding their identities from news and incident reports. "There's only one reason to do this: to evade accountability for your actions," notes Vox's Matthew Yglesias.

Yesterday, the FAA renewed its no-flight zone over Ferguson. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon renewed the request originally made by law enforcement on Aug. 12. While it seemed doubtful at that time that this crisis would go on for longer than a week, at this point, an Aug. 25 expiration date for the renewed flight ban doesn't seem so far away. 

A police helicopter flying over Ferguson. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

A week ago, the St. Louis County Police Department told The Washington Post that its helicopter was shot at several times on Aug. 10, when some isolated instances of looting first broke out. The violence was renewed again last night: Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said today that police endured "heavy gunfire from protesters" and that "violent agitators" were using the demonstrations as cover for criminal acts.

The claim that protesters are firing at the St. Louis County police helicopter deserves an immediate hearing. That's a dubious claim that cannot be allowed to guide news coverage of this event without strong evidence suggesting that protesters would fire on news helicopters. Even if that claim turns out to be true, there is one solution that would allow news crews to do their jobs without opening their helicopters up to the alleged threat of pedestrians: Governor Nixon should ask the FAA to open up Ferguson airspace to drones. 

Despite the best efforts of journalists on the ground, and because of the restrictions being placed on them by police—including handcuffs—news audiences are coming to very different conclusions about what's actually happening at night in Ferguson. A national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 65 percent of black respondents think the police response to demonstrations in Ferguson has gone too far—nearly twice the number of their white counterparts. In a similar vein, 52 percent of white respondents say that they have great confidence in the investigations into the shootings, whereas just 18 percent of black respondents can say the same.

Of course, any viewers could come away with opposite conclusions after watching the same newscast. But the City of Ferguson knows that it has a public perception problem, one that it is handling poorly so far. Ferguson can turn the narrative around only by requiring accountability from the police and demanding access for press—period, full stop, with no further delay.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.