A Radical Answer to the Body Cam Debate

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

photo 1Arielle Newton, Founder/Editor-in-Chief. Get at me @arielle_newton. Get at us @BlkMillennials.

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6 responses to “A Radical Answer to the Body Cam Debate

  1. I haven’t been the fan of body cams for many of the reasons that you listed above. It does help us see the perspective of a cop (as The Typewriter said) but isn’t it primarily the cop’s perspective that we see? We understand the risk and dangers with their profession so I’m not sure I need to see that. What I need to see is accountability for how they respond to those risks and dangers. I guess its possible that seeing what led up to that “final moment” would help me sympathize with or understand the decisions made but it doesn’t change those decisions being right or wrong. Or do they?

    As for the idea of equipping the community to “police the police”…you raised great questions to consider before allowing this to happen. But it did remind me very briefly of Zimmerman and his role in being neighborhood watch. Although his role was to assist the police in watching the neighborhood, whereas in this scenario it would be to assist the community in watching the neighborhood.

    We would definitely have to create laws and regulations for the community watch to follow (for their own safety as well as the safety of the community and the police), and have a standard of accountability when people do not follow those laws. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Arielle,

    The Body Worn Video Steering Group (www.bwvsg.com) is a great resource to answer questions surrounding body cameras:

    “how that footage is stored, categorized, or processed…how it’s used.”

    It is also advised to look at individual agency policies – posted on their websites for further information, as policy varies in different areas due to differences in definitions of Privacy in state constitutions.

    Additionally you have intelligently identified the power of the public’s right to film – please see this article describing the difference between surveillance and sousveillance which may be of interest: http://www.bwvsg.com/news/surveillance-sousveillance/

    Like

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