Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
It depends on what the end goals are.
This week the New York City Police Department is bracing itself for the grand jury decision in the case of Eric Garner's chokehold-induced death. (Update: A Staten Island grand jury has voted not to bring criminal charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer involved.) Unlike the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, this incident was caught on tape. Now that President Obama has asked Congress for $75 million to fund 50,000 police body cameras in cities across the country, more cases of alleged police misconduct might be recorded. But the devices alone may not necessarily foster police accountability.
What led to President Obama focusing on body cameras?
The Obama administration's announcement earlier this week wasn't a surprise, really. It follows protests in Ferguson, after a grand jury there decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Brown. In the last few months, Brown's parents have rallied for body cameras, politicians have called for them, and thousands of Americans have signed petitions asking that they be used. Attorney General Eric Holder rolled out a report listing recommendations for their implementation in September, so the idea has been brewing for a while.
Several U.S. police departments have already tested mandatory body cameras. Are there obstacles to more widespread adoption?
Issues of consent and privacy have surfaced in some states. Neither all officers and nor all suspects are comfortable with being taped. Many officers are skeptical that they will make a difference, and are reluctant to wear them.
Even if these privacy concerns are ironed out, access to the footage they produce is not a given. In California and Washington, body camera policies come into conflict with public record laws. In San Diego, for example, Sara Libby notes that the police department routinely denies media requests for body camera video footage.
Finally, 50,000 cameras aren't nearly enough to cover all police officers.
Just how effective are body cameras?
It depends on what the end goal is. They have certainly been successful in grabbing media attention in cases of alleged police misconduct. But when it comes to decreasing police abuse, there just isn't enough evidence yet on a national scale to determine that they are successful. Some cities have, however, reported major declines in both use of force and citizen complaints about police.
If the objective is convictions for police misconduct, body cameras don't guarantee them. Video evidence, although more reliable than witness testimony, didn't help the convict Orange County police officers for beating a mentally-ill homeless man to death in 2013. That same year, a Chicago police officer shot and killed an unarmed man, but wasn't charged. The man who killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man in Oakland, was also found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter this year. Jury decisions rely on a lot more than just the existence of video footage; they depend on how that evidence is presented.
Anil Dash had a tweet this week that sums it up pretty neatly:
I support body cameras for cops, but it exemplifies tech solutionism's myopia. Video of police abuse doesn't magically cause accountability.— Anil Dash (@anildash) December 1, 2014