Unarmed black men are shot and killed by authorities often, from James Powell to Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell to Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham to Michael Brown. This has been happening for a long time, but these cases are more visible now because of technology. Cameras and video recording capabilities in phones, combined with the sharing power of Twitter, Vine, and Facebook, have made it easier to disseminate information about conflict in real time—whether it's happening in Gaza, Tahrir Square, or Ferguson, Mo. It's a new kind of surveillance and a very powerful tool.
The widespread use of traditional surveillance cameras began in the 1960s when banks, homes, and airports were in need of tighter security measures. Authorities believed these closed-circuit televisions (CCTV) helped curb crime simply by instilling a sense of fear and paranoia in the minds of prospective criminals and terrorists. Today, it's almost impossible to walk outside in an urban area without spotting several security cameras looming above your head. But what happens when that same technology is placed in the hands of ordinary citizens?
In the recent case of Eric Garner, Ramsey Orta filmed a cop putting Garner in the choke-hold that killed him. Some reports suggest that Mike Brown's shooting was recorded as well. Local eyewitnesses in Ferguson claim they caught the incident on camera and saw Brown with his hands in the air when he was shot. This footage has not been released, but if there's truth to these reports, it would only serve to underscore the community's distrust of law enforcement.
If eyewitnesses continue to release footage like that of Eric Garner's death on the Internet, a perfectly legal act, public distrust will mount and more protests will happen. Another option is for police officers to start capturing their activities on camera themselves. Requiring police officers to wear body cameras is a highly debated issue, but some advocates believe it will curb excessive force. Rialto, Calif. has already implemented a program, and early evidence suggests police misconduct has declined. The Guardian reports:
Rialto's randomized controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific—and encouraging—findings: after cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers' use of force fell by 60%
If Darren Wilson had been wearing a body camera, would Brown still be alive today? It's hard to say. According to Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief, the camera in the squad car from which the first bullet was fired was not on during the time of the altercation. If Wilson wasn't capable of turning on the security camera in the squad car, who's to say that officers will turn on their body cameras? It's too early to know whether or not body cameras or any sort of wearable technology will have a lasting effect on police misconduct, but it's an option worth exploring.
“We have always said that cameras are a double-edged sword—they would present a lot of potential for good and a lot of potential for privacy invasions,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “But when you’re interacting with the Police Department, there is so much ‘he said, she said.’ The power imbalance is enormous. Body cameras, with the right privacy protections in place, could be a wonderful step. Everybody wins—New Yorkers and the police.”
In New York City, five precincts are tentatively set to participate in a one-year pilot program that requires officers to wear body cams after a ruling from Judge Shira Scheindlin. As a vocal opponent of the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk practices in New York, Scheindlin believes body cams will make a difference. Yesterday, Letitia James, New York's City Public Advocate, proposed a $32 million program to outfit dozens of cops in high-crime areas with body cameras. Each camera would cost about $400 - $900. The hope is the program would help offset the $152 million the city spends on legal proceedings centered on police misconduct. This doesn't mean it will prevent another Mike Brown from happening.
To provide more context around the use of body cams, I spoke with Baher Azmy, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has worked with Judge Scheindlin. According the Azmy, there's no guarantee that body cams will stop another tragedy from happening, but there's no doubt in his mind that smart phones aren't recording anything new. Communities have been complaining about police harassment and misconduct for a very long time, only now we are starting to see just how rampant it is. Below is a condensed version of our phone conversation.
Do you think that body cameras could have prevented a circumstance like what happened in Ferguson, Mo. from happening?
I think it’s a mistake to think that cameras alone will radically change police-community relationships. I think it’s one important step toward transparency and accountability, and some studies have suggested, in communities that have used police cameras, that recording police activity reduces the incidence of police violence. But fundamentally, what is needed in New York and other communities is genuine reform and collaborative policing relationships between police and the communities they serve. Police cameras recorded the Garner killing, but they certainly didn’t prevent it, and in order to prevent these things in the future, we need precisely the kind of fundamental reforms of the NYPD and other police departments across the country.
Police are often accused of targeting communities of color. How does that come into play and what will the body camera pilot program show us?
I think it could contribute to developing or demonstrating just how violent and over-reactive the police can be, and then confirming in full color what communities have been saying for a long time. [A body camera] can be a really useful tool. Ultimately, though, a technological solution can only go so far, and what we need is a radical reorientation around the police’s relationship to the community. It’s a small piece of a broader accountability tableau.
Has there been a lot of resistance from law enforcement to have these sort of programs roll out?
I’m not entirely sure what police department’s attitudes towards cameras are—it probably varies across the police department. I think even some communities have mixed feelings, because some are concerned that it’s another tool of surveillance. And we have some of those concerns as well. It needs to be a mechanism of police accountability, and not some indiscriminate surveillance of communities.
Many have called attention to the fact that, though Ferguson is a primarily black neighborhood, the law enforcement and elected officials are primarily white. How does stop-and-frisk factor into this narrative?
I think New York spearheaded this whole movement of broken-windows policing and stop-and-frisk policing, which is an aggressive, so-called preventative policing model where the police seeks out low-level crimes, and harasses the community regularly in order to send a deterrent message. It’s not a crime-solving tool, it’s a tool of control and intimidation. That’s been the NYPD’s contribution to policing across the country. It’s a model that’s taken hold in a lot of places. It exacerbates suspicion between the police and the community, because everyone is a potential criminal in this model of policing, and the police are charged with trying to identify way in advance where crime might happen. It’s a formula for these kind of incidents that are recently coming to light, but have been at play for years in New York City.
Are we starting to see the proliferation of these types of cases, or do you think this is just the byproduct of easier access to smartphones and technology?
This is without a doubt not a new phenomenon. Communities have been talking about this for many years; about police harassment and intimidation and violence. I think we saw it fortuitously in the Rodney King beating, and to some extent, the latter is what’s responsible. We’re now seeing more evidence of what once was hidden and the police can’t simply deny what’s before everyone’s eyes in plain sight.
Lauretta Charlton is an Associate Editor at Complex. She tweets at @laurettaland.