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Mandatory Body Cams Are an Essential Part of Addressing and Remedying the Police Brutality Public Health Crisis Among African Americans

Written by NDH Attorney Maria-Vittoria Carminati 

Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero

                                                                       – Changes, Tupac Shakur (1998)

Police brutality is fundamentally an issue of race inequality. While certainly people of all colors and creeds can become victims of police brutality, black men and women have suffered this ignominious evil since the founding of our country. Indeed, in the South of the United States, police forces were inescapably intertwined with the institution of slavery:

The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982). The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.[1]

As a perfect storm of violence, quarantine, political clout, and righteous rage foments a most understandable rising of people across the country, the time is ripe to bring about change in law enforcement. Colorado is taking the moment, by the horns, and attempting to pass SB20-217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Bill.

Studies regarding the use of body cams underscore that body cams are a disinfectant, not panacea. It is important to understand that distinction and their purpose when advocating for their presence with every officer. SB20-217, now making its way through the Colorado legislature, will surely trigger these types of conversations. So here is a brief summary of why mandating body cams on law enforcement is critical.police body camera

What Body Cams Achieve in Theory.

According to a 2018 article by Brett Chapman, published on the National Institute of Justice, only one third of U.S. municipal police departments had implemented use of body-worn cameras.[2] A 2019 article in the Christian Monitor indicated that number may be closer to two thirds.[3] SB20-217 would push Colorado into that small but growing group. Proponents of body cams point to the following as reasons for requiring body-worn cameras on officers:

  • If police officers’ actions are recorded and available for review, they are deemed transparent. When that happens, the legitimacy of policing increases. Much like people feel that people shouldn’t have “anything to hide,” the same is true for police officers. They shouldn’t have “anything to hide.”
  • Quicker resolution. When disputes arise between an officer’s and a civilian’s account, a camera is one means to dispel those disputes and provide a third-party neutral or investigator something to base themselves on, rather than people’s accounts of events. Having this allows disputes to be put to bed quicker.
  • Corroborating evidence. Footage can assist officers in completing their own paperwork (they can record and then take down information). Footage will also help civil and criminal investigations when law enforcement officers engage in excessive use of force and/or lethal incidents.
  • Training opportunities. Officers who can review footage can also use that footage (or have it used by others) to illustrate proper and improper handling of situations. This would be a critical tool to provide feedback using real life scenarios. (In that respect, it is similar to M&Ms physicians undergo when someone is hurt or dies while receiving medical care).

What Do Body Cams Achieve in Practice.

In 2014, the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center conducted body cam research in the United Kingdom.[4] The study found that body cams had several benefits for law enforcement officers themselves. Interactions with members of the public were more positive (because both parties to the interaction knew they were being recorded), crime was down, citizen complaints were down, arrests and guilty pleas were up.

Studies were also conducted in the United States. Earlier studies were apparently plagued with methodological gaps, but later ones were more robust.[5] A 2014 by the Arizona State University (funded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Smart Policing Initiative) found that officers with body-worn cameras were more productive in making arrests, had fewer complaints, and of those complaints, a larger percentage were resolved in their favor.[6] Another study, conducted with the Rialto (California) Police Department reached the same conclusions, and saw a decrease in use-of-force incidents.[7] “During the 12-month Rialto experiment, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent and complaints against officers dropped by 87 percent compared to the previous year’s totals, the article states.”[8] Other researchers at Arizona State University concluded that officers with body cams were more sensitive to their own interactions due to possible scrutiny of the footage by their superiors.[9] Larger studies support these conclusions.

A 2016 global, multisite randomized controlled trial by research Barak Ariel found that the number of use-of-force incidents was impacted by police officers’ discretion in the timing of turning on their body cams.[10] Use of force incidents went down when officers had to turn on their cameras upon arrival at the scene compared to situations where officers had more discretion regarding when they were allowed to turn on their cameras. This result was replicated in a 2017 CAN research conducted in a randomized fashion on 400 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers.[11]

Despite this, more recently, review of a large body of research indicates that these differences in behavior are not as marked as one would think. Opponents of mandatory body cams point to this as a reason not to require body cams. However, what they miss is that in those few cases where there is a use of force, and it actually results in an indictment, video footage is almost always a part of that equation. Campaign Zero, a group that proposes policies to reduce police shootings, says as much on its website, “Nearly every case where a police officer was charged with a crime for killing a civilian in 2015 relied on video evidence showing the officer’s actions.”[12]

Mandating Body Cams is Non-Negotiable in the Fight Against Systemic Racism.

Based on the research, therefore, there are two major reasons to mandate body cameras: 1) they lead to a decrease in use of force when turning them on upon arrival at the scene is non-discretionary and 2) it appears that holding abusive law enforcement officers accountable without such videos is near impossible. In other words, not only do body cams create a safer society they also create the reality of justice in a country where law enforcement abuse has gone, by and large, unpunished. This is especially vital in a country where this unpunished violence is directed at our black citizenry. And just to reiterate the point, African Americans are disproportionately victims of police brutality, and they have been for as long as police forces have existed.

As reported by Al Jazeera on May 31, 2020, African Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely as white Americans to be killed by the police eve though they only make up 13% of the US population.[13] In Minnesota, where Black Americans are 5% of the population, they consist of 20% of those killed by police.[14] Another way to present the data is that black people are 24% of those killed by police despite being only 13% of the population.[15] Police brutality is an African American healthcare crisis and we have a moral obligation to do something about it. Silence or apathy means to allow the continued slaughter of black men and women.

If we have a tool that can move us towards justice, both as to prevention and accountability of law enforcement abuses, and the injustice of not having this measure is borne by one particular segment of our society, then we must take it upon ourselves to use that tool. This is not just good policy, it is a moral imperative. Doing anything else is simply telling our black brothers and sisters that we don’t give a damn about them or their children: there is no excuse for that.

[1] Dr. Gary Potter, The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1, EKU Police Studies Online, https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/history-policing-united-states-part-1#:~:text=In%201838%2C%20the%20city%20of,Lundman%201980%3B%20Lynch%201984). (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[2] Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2013: Equipment and Technology, Bulletin, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2015, NCJ 248767, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd13et.pdf (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[3] Patrik Jonsson, The Body Cam Revolution: What It Has, and Hasn’t, Accomplished (Aug. 9, 2019), https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2019/0809/The-body-cam-revolution-What-it-has-and-hasn-t-accomplished (Last accessed June 7, 2020).

[4] White, Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras.

[5] See Brian Reaves, Body Worn Cameras: What the Evidence Tells Us, https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/body-worn-cameras-what-evidence-tells-us#noteReference5 (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[6]  Charles Katz, David Choate, Justin Ready, and Lidia Nuno, “Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix Police Department” (Phoenix, AZ: Center for Violence & Community Safety, Arizona State University, 2015).

[7]  Barak Ariel, William A. Farrar, and Alex Sutherland, “The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 31 no. 3 (2015): 509-535.

[8] Nat’l Police Foundation, Body-worn camera study by Executive Fellow Chief Tony Farrar is published in scientific journal, https://www.policefoundation.org/body-worn-camera-study-by-executive-fellow-chief-tony-farrar-is-published-in-scientific-journal/ (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[9] Justin T. Ready and Jacob T.N. Young, “The Impact of On-Officer Video Cameras on Police-Citizen Contacts: Findings from a Controlled Experiment in Mesa, AZ,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 11 no. 3 (2015): 445-458.

[10] Barak Ariel, Alex Sutherland, Darren Henstock, Josh Young, Paul Drover, Jayne Sykes, Simon Megicks, and Ryan Henderson, “Report: Increases in Police Use of Force in the Presence of Body-Worn Cameras Are Driven by Officer Discretion: A Protocol-Based Subgroup Analysis of Ten Randomized Experiments,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 12 no. 3 (2016): 453-463.

[11] Anthony Braga, James R. Coldren, William Sousa, Denise Rodriguez, and Omer Alper, The Benefits of Body-Worn Cameras: New Findings from a Randomized Controlled Trial at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, December 2017.

[12] Campaign Zero, https://www.joincampaignzero.org/film-the-police (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[13] Mohammed Haddad, Mapping US Police Killings of Black Americans, (May 31, 2020) https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/05/mapping-police-killings-black-americans-200531105741757.html (last accessed June 7, 2020).

[14] Id.

[15] https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ (last accessed June 7, 2020).

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