Body cameras are a hot button issue in the national police problem. Some (mostly politicians and Establishment folks) advocate for them, surmising that body cams protect civilians from excessive and lethal force, and police from false claims.
However, in recent months, many are questioning the feasibility of body cameras in curbing police violence. Eric Garner, who Ramsey Orta filmed being choked to death by Officer Pantaleo, was still vilified and did not receive justice despite indisputable evidence that he was placed in an illegal chokehold. And today, Orta sits in jail for his heroism.
Additionally, footage from body cams, when in the hands of police, are sometimes erased or edited to absolve officers of criminality. Cameras conveniently “malfunction” in incidents of brutality and death. Throw in that surveillance and technology companies stand to make billions from taxpayer dollars by selling these devices to state-sanctioned police units with the blessing of politicians who support them, and body cams become vulnerable to economic mismanagement and imminent political corruption.
So what’s the answer? Community control of filming devices is a good place to start.
When in police hands, body cams are not a secure way to strengthen community-police relations. Instead, they further deteriorate relations because body cams are yet another weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal. There’s been claims that body cams are used to surveil members of the community, making us targets whose civil rights are violated without our knowledge.
When I was in Ferguson demanding Black justice in front of militarized police units alongside thousands of my Brothers and Sisters, I saw those body cams with their nefarious red lights, and knew that when the storm calmed, police would ravage through the footage trying to pinpoint who’s who. I also knew that the footage would be shared across various law enforcement agencies, creating a multifaceted, widespread database that only the privileged could access.
When the footage is behind the wall of the law enforcement institution, there’s no public accountability. We don’t know how that footage is stored, categorized, or processed. And we certainly don’t know how it’s used.
The issue of body cams must come from a radical cultural shift in how we view and validate police authority. We need to deeply believe that law enforcement is inherently racist and is used to confine and surveil Black and Brown communities. If body cams are viewed with the mindset that the institution of policing is valid, legitimate, and colorblind, then body cams are marketed as the end-all-be-all in cultivating positive recourse.
But if we’re wholeheartedly ingrained in the truth that law enforcement is simply a for-profit enterprise playing on those racist tropes and fears needed for its authoritative sustainability and organizational legitimacy, then we know to be more thoughtful and intentional about how body cams are owned and operated.
And we — as a community — know that we can do a better job in handling body cams for the right reasons. Of course, the details of community ownership of body cams or filming devices are technical and complicated. Who in the community should own them? What’s the chain of custody? What types of devices should be used? What are the legal and financial parameters?
These questions are significant and deserve ample consideration. I have my own ideas, but not all the best answers. For now, I think cop-watch groups are the best entry point for community-owned filming devices, given their natural roots in the community, and their training in monitoring police activity.
These answers vary depending on region and geopolitical environs. And to me, that’s the best part. Members most familiar with their neighborhoods and local political culture, should self-determine their own radical view to how body cams are best handled with the community’s unique needs in mind.
But honestly, the details are the easy part to decipher. The hard part comes with the culture shift — the transformative realization that law enforcement is dishonest and underserving of our trust. We must approach the issue with the mindset that filming police is a great thing, but police filming police is not a solution to, but an expansion of, the policing problem.
*Featured Image Credit: www.lawenforcementtoday.com