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Would the grand jury indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of African-American teen Michael Brown?
No, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch said.
People who had gathered in the streets for McCulloch’s announcement began to demonstrate, sparking unrest that would repeat itself for several more nights. Similar protests spread across the nation.
Meanwhile, lacking any video evidence of the interaction between Wilson and Brown, it seems that the much-debated question of whether Brown was trying to surrender or reaching for the gun will remain unanswered.
Conversation soon turned to body cameras, the technology that both sides in Ferguson believe would have provided some sort of indisputable proof. And, exactly one week after the grand jury’s decision, President Obama asked Congress to approve $263 million in funding that would help purchase 50,000 body cameras and provide training.
But the story does not end there.
Two days later – Wednesday, Dec. 3 – a grand jury in Staten Island cleared white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who in July was filmed applying a “chokehold” to an African-American man. That man – 44-year-old Eric Garner – died.
Another white officer. Another black fatality. This time, though, there was ample video – seemingly damning video – but, to the shock of many, the same result. No charges.
It begs the question: Do body cameras indeed offer a solution? Or, as with Garner, will they merely inflame future situations?
“Personally and professionally, I think it’s a good thing, but I’m also quite realistic. I don’t believe this is going to be a panacea,” says Miller, whose research pays special attention to the criminal justice system as a focus for race, class and gender inequalities.
“In terms of the Ferguson case, we had a lot of interest in the belief that cameras would provide some irrefutable evidence as to what happened and who was to blame,” he adds. “But it’s clear from the Garner case, and beyond the Garner case, that having the visual evidence cameras provide doesn’t necessarily add clarity in terms of fault or even what the actual events were that ignited a police interaction.”
- A body camera provides only the vantage point of the police officer, focusing solely only the behavior of the citizens and “thereby providing the basis for police power or authority to be exerted.”
- Many police officers are reluctant to wear the cameras – even though the devices might verify their versions of events. “I don’t get the sense that those at the front lines of the pro-body camera movement are contemplating that as a possibility,” he says.
- Police officers wearing body cameras might delay time-critical decisions because they know that their heat-of-the-moment choices are being recorded and could prove wrong and controversial.
- Civil libertarians and privacy-rights activists take exception to citizens being filmed without their consent.
Various chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police are reacting unfavorably, Miller says, “particularly in Ohio, about what they believe is negative scrutiny of officers in the Tamir Rice case.”
“The police are feeling pretty picked on, scapegoated and not supported,” he adds. “The mayor of New York is now being uninvited, or kept away, from funerals for police officers.”
Meanwhile, he says, new research that examines the impact of police-worn body cameras shows that officers wearing the devices might feel less inclined to engage with citizens. “This has real consequences in terms of the extent of crime,” he says, “and the potential for people who are doing bad things to not be arrested.”
But “over time, the resistance that officers initially have to adopting body-worn technology diminishes,” he says. “When something is new, it’s front and center of one’s consciousness. It affects the way they engage and do their job. Later it becomes routine and disappears from that dynamic.”
First, though, police departments must add the cameras to the toolkits of their officers. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department did just that this week as it began a 60-day trial.
Such a move is vital to repairing the broken relationship between police and some of the people they serve, Miller says.
“The willingness of law enforcement agencies and police officers to use new technology like cameras is one step in the process, and the process is really about accountability,” he says.
“Accountability is at the core of a solid relationship between police and communities, where both are working toward the project of policing. The project of public safety. The project of crime-free communities. When community members are accountable for their behavior and police officers are accountable for their behavior, that has the potential to build trust,” he adds.
“Body-worn cameras provide one mechanism to improve the accountability arrangement that we have in a modern society that values the principles of democracy and lives by them.”
It starts with police, he says.
“We’re trying to minimize the likelihood that police officers would use deadly force or other force inappropriately. If police are being watched – much like the police are watching you – that affects people’s behavior. That makes them think twice,” he adds.
“Body cameras should increase the quality and validity of police-citizen encounters, and may have as much of an impact in how most citizens experience police services and law enforcement in their communities than as evidence in the criminal justice process.”