In August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Partially as the result of conflicting accounts of what happened, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, sparking a national debate about police brutality, particularly against people of color, and the limits of police accountability. Through numerous incidents of police abuse that have followed, culminating most recently in protests and civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, one proposed reform has gained much attention – the adoption of police body-worn cameras.
As the nation wrestles with the possibility that police brutality may reflect structural, implicit bias against people of color, supporters of police body-worn cameras argue that they would provide an objective record of what transpired when an interaction between a police officer and a civilian leads to the civilian’s injury or death. As evidence of video’s power, they point to North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who was charged with first degree murder three days after shooting Walter Scott. Slager’s indictment was due in large part to a video recording of the shooting that contradicted his report of events. Supporters also point to the benefit of body-worn cameras in disproving false claims of abuse against police and in encouraging both police and civilians to “be on their best behavior,” since they know a camera is recording their words and actions.
Skeptics, however, point to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island as evidence that cameras, at least absent fundamental changes in policing, will have little impact on police behavior or accountability. Garner’s tragic death occurred when one of the five New York City police officers attempting to arrest him for a minor infraction put him in what appeared to be a banned chokehold. Despite shocking video of Garner’s arrest – in which he can be heard pleading that he is unable to breathe – prosecutors refused to indict the officer. Video failed to bring justice for Garner or his family.
In the ACS Issue Brief “Police Body-Worn Cameras: Evidentiary Benefits and Privacy Threats” Professor Marc Jonathan Blitz of Oklahoma City University School of Law examines the costs and benefits of body-worn cameras programs and, while acknowledging that cameras will not serve as a panacea, outlines policies that police departments should adopt to ensure the maximum effectiveness of such programs. As Blitz observes, “Even when camera evidence is flawed, it is often far better than eyewitness accounts, especially when such eyewitness accounts are given long after the events.”