Skip to content

Police Body Cameras: A Failed Policy


Around the time the Black Lives Matter movement began in earnest, so too did a national discussion on ways to monitor police officers and moderate their behavior. One of those measures was to develop widespread use of body cameras by police. Thus far, this policy has been largely a failure.

Common Dreams analyzed body camera programs in 50 US cities to determine how those policies were put in place, whether they held police officers properly accountable, and to what extent they protected the civil rights of citizens. The results were mixed, at best. The analysis looked at 8 criteria:

> > * Makes its policy publicly and readily available; * Limits officer discretion on when to record; * Addresses personal privacy concerns; * Prohibits officer pre-report viewing; * Limits retention of footage; * Protects footage against tampering and misuse; * Makes footage available to individuals filing complaints; and * Limits the use of biometric technologies.

No department passed all of these measures, and about a quarter passed two or more. All departments studied had at least some provision for officers to review video footage before making their own reports–a practice which compromises independent recordkeeping. About half of the departments surveyed didn’t publicly disclose the existence of such a program on their websites. Transparency is essential in such a program, given that they are a relatively new development. The public needs to have input on how they are policed, and instead, the way these policies work is often kept secret and unaccountable. This defeats the entire purpose of having a body camera program to begin with.

Not all the news is bad, but there wasn’t much good news, either. What is good is that some departments are developing policies to allow civilians who’ve been recorded to review those records. A few departments have also promised to limit their use of facial recognition technology with regard to body camera footage, in order to protect the privacy and civil rights of civilians who are recorded.

Body cameras have sometimes been presented as a panacea–if police are watched all the time, they’ll stop shooting people, they’ll stop abusive behavior, they’ll do their jobs properly. But this belief falls victim to the same fantasy that mainstream discourse in the US exhibited prior to the rise of BLM. It is the false belief that police departments are largely unaware of the bad behavior happening in their ranks, that it’s only a few bad seeds who are making police, as a whole, look bad. If only we had better monitoring, police would shape up.

But monitoring isn’t and has never been the issue. Monitoring can help–it can provide evidence of misconduct that will be useful in litigation–but it does not automatically change behavior. For one thing, it’s still possible in too many police departments for cameras to mysteriously “fail” without negative consequences for the officer. These failures often coincidentally happen during incidents that result in complaints of brutality and misconduct. It doesn’t take much speculation to figure out what really happened in those instances.

Even if such consequences existed, thus far we’ve also seen that when police are caught on camera killing unarmed people in completely non-threatening postures, they are rarely held accountable in any meaningful way. Few are charged with a crime to begin with. Of the few who are charged, almost none actually get a conviction, to say nothing of the light penalties involved when a conviction is obtained. Essentially, police are given wide discretion to use deadly force, and almost never see the inside of a prison when they misuse that power.

Racial dimensions are also impossible to ignore, here. The Black Lives Matter movement helped draw attention to the fact that black people are disproportionately harmed by aggressive policing measures. Indeed, non-white minorities in general are at a higher risk of being assaulted or killed by police than white people, and this is a trend that exists over and above other socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, and local crime rates.

Body camera policies assume the problem is that police don’t think through the consequences of their behavior. It’s as if an officer without a body camera might think it’s fine to hassle a black man, but an officer with a camera will think twice. It doesn’t work that way. For one thing, many of these police abuses are due to implicit bias and institutional problems, which body cameras do not affect at all. The presence of a camera, in and of itself, does not change officer behavior if the officer is aware that no matter what’s recorded, no negative consequences will result from it.

This is not to say that the cameras are useless. They are a valuable tool for keeping an independent record of police interactions with citizens. A body camera can just as easily back up an officer’s actions as it can reinforce the testimony of a complaining citizen. But the implicit biases and institutional failures which result in officers overusing force against citizens cannot and will not be cured by the presence of cameras. The reforms must go much, much deeper.

Realistically, we’re looking at a long-term, nearly complete overhaul of our criminal justice system to address these systemic inequities. It is a conflict that will have to be fought city by city, county by county, state by state. The federal government has no mandate to tell local police departments what to do. Citizens in each jurisdiction will have to stand up to demand change. But that change will also be complicated, and difficult to come by. Well-meaning advocates, very often white allies, tend to think a series of straightforward policy changes will be sufficient, but it’s clear that the problems go much deeper.

Police don’t exist in a vacuum. They reflect the society around them. If police are systematically abusive toward people of color, it’s because society ingrains and endorses that message. It may not be a message that we want, but it’s a message that exists and penetrates nonetheless. To a significant extent, policing cannot be “fixed” without fixing social ills, as well. Poverty amelioration will do more to lower crime rates and reduce the necessity of dense police forces than any boost in law enforcement budgets can. Likewise with investments in education and infrastructure.

Too many demands have been placed on police to begin with–they are being called on to address situations that would be better handled by staff trained in other disciplines. Those burdens need to be reduced and the roles of police departments scaled back, addressing more social problems through the use of community programs rather than making police the first point of contact with the community.

By all means, bring on the body cameras. But the work can’t stop there. There is so much more to do.