Why Body Cameras Can Still Fail To Hold Police Accountable

By Nathalie Baptist

On April 21, while attempt­ing to serve a war­rant, North Carolina police shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man in Elizabeth City. The entire inci­dent was record­ed, since the offi­cers involved were wear­ing body cam­eras. But actu­al­ly see­ing the footage of the shoot­ing has been a chal­lenge for Brown’s fam­i­ly, lawyers, and the wider public.

Body-worn cam­eras are intend­ed to pro­vide trans­paren­cy into polic­ing. But they stop being a tool to pro­tect the pub­lic from police bru­tal­i­ty when the only peo­ple who end up with pro­tec­tion appear to be the cops who did the shoot­ing, as seems to be the case with the offi­cers who killed Brown. Body cam­era laws vary by state, but in North Carolina, local courts have author­i­ty over releas­ing footage. After the shoot­ing, a North Carolina state judge ruled that Brown’s fam­i­ly could see the entire tape with­in 10 days, but there would be no release to the gen­er­al pub­lic. In fact, Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster ordered the depart­ment to blur the faces and name tags of the police offi­cers involved. “The release at this time would cre­ate a seri­ous threat to the fair, impar­tial and order­ly admin­is­tra­tion of jus­tice,” he said in his rul­ing.

Brown joins an ever-grow­ing list of high-pro­file deaths caught on police cam­eras. But, in many cas­es, instead of pro­vid­ing account­abil­i­ty, the cam­eras have most­ly served as the con­duit for a seem­ing­ly end­less and trau­ma­tiz­ing stream of police vio­lence. In the short clip that the victim’s fam­i­ly was allowed to see, they say that Brown had his hands on the steer­ing wheel as police fired bul­lets into his car. They called it not just a police shoot­ing but “an exe­cu­tion.”

I start­ed writ­ing about police shoot­ings and body cam­eras back in 2015 when the devices were her­ald­ed as one neat trick to fix polic­ing. Six years lat­er, the par­al­lels are strik­ing. Back then, after a string of high pro­file shoot­ings includ­ing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ed local police depart­ments with mil­lions of dol­lars to out­fit their law enforce­ment offi­cers with body cams. “The impact of body-worn cam­eras touch­es on a range of out­comes that build upon efforts to mend the fab­ric of trust, respect, and com­mon pur­pose that all com­mu­ni­ties need to thrive,” then Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

But it quick­ly became clear that police body cam­eras wouldn’t trans­form polic­ing in the ways the Obama admin­is­tra­tion had intend­ed. In 2016, after Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police offi­cers shot and killed Alton Sterling, both cops who were on the scene said their body cam­eras “fell off.” That same year, a Washington, DC, police offi­cer sim­ply didn’t turn on his cam­era until after he shot Terrence Sterling. In oth­er instances, police depart­ments have delayed releas­ing the tape alto­geth­er, which leaves the pub­lic and the victim’s loved ones to spec­u­late on what happened.

It some­times seems as if the mere pres­ence of body footage becomes so threat­en­ing that it can inspire an exces­sive police response. When police depart­ments and local offi­cials agree to release videos of police killings, they often use it as a weapon. This week in Elizabeth City, a most­ly-Black town of approx­i­mate­ly 17,000 peo­ple, a num­ber of demon­stra­tors demand­ed to see the video that depict­ed Brown’s final moments. In response, the may­or declared a state of emer­gency, set a cur­few for 8:00pm each night, and the police appeared at the peace­ful protests wear­ing full riot gear.

Body cams did not cre­ate police account­abil­i­ty for the same rea­son that many pre­vi­ous attempts of reform have failed: The rank and file in the depart­ments resist change. As my col­league Laura Thompson report­ed ear­li­er this month, cops fre­quent­ly ignore new reforms, such as restric­tions on neck restrains and no-knock war­rants. In the after­math of George Floyd’s death a year ago in May, there have been many calls and pro­pos­als for reform­ing the police, includ­ing a com­pre­hen­sive bill intro­duced by the Democrats. The use of body cams holds a promi­nent place in all these pro­pos­als. But it turns out, body cam­eras are only as use­ful as police allow them to be.

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