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The limited efficacy of body cameras

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The limited efficacy of body cameras

Many advocates for the use of body cameras on police were quick to credit them for outing the cops that bludgeoned Tyre Nichols. Without the body cameras and the relatively speedy release of the grotesque footage of the Nichols assault, the five cops that beat him almost certainly would have walked free.

This is a false hope. The blunt truth is that body cameras are a colossal failure to curb police violence. Police killings hit a record high in 2022. And despite the widespread public impression that most departments now require body cameras on officers, the overwhelming majority of them nationwide don’t. Only seven states require their use. Memphis was an anomaly in a police department promptly releasing body camera footage. Most police departments still don’t release them instantly or on a timely basis.

The presumption has always been that when cops know they are being filmed, and their actions documented, this will make them far less inclined to be quick on the trigger or in the use of their fists.

This hasn’t been the case. There’s far more to the use of body cameras than just simply clamping one on the lapel or collar of an officer. There’s the matter of what a body camera can and can’t do, or even should be expected to do.

A body camera has little practical value here. Its main function is to document encounters that involve the potential use of force. That is, to provide a neutral, objective picture of what went on during that encounter, to avoid the almost certain “he said/she said” about how and why a use-of-force tragedy happened. But that may not be the case. In the state trial of the four LAPD officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in 1991, their defense attorneys skillfully pounded away that the video of the beating did not give the complete picture of what happened.

In the trials of other police officers since the King case who have been charged with the overuse of force, in which there was video evidence that appeared to show the officer did commit the acts, their defense attorneys have also argued that the camera captured only part of the picture, not the whole picture.

A body camera has a similar hitch, in this case technologically. It records only what’s in front of the officer. If the officer turns his body, is walking or running, and there are different angles in the encounter, it won’t give an accurate picture of the full encounter.

There are a couple of other hitches that render the use of body cameras questionable, if not almost worthless in reducing police violence. The Memphis officers that beat Nichols wore body cameras, had them turned on, and knew they were being filmed. There was no effort by police officials to drag their feet on timely release, and certainly not doctor the footage.

Yet, the officers still acted with reckless and hideous brutality in assaulting Nichols. There had to be a level of confidence on their part that the footage alone of their wanton violence would not get them into hot water with the department’s higher-ups. There had to be the same level of confidence that the protective culture of policing and the ingrained belief among much of the public that police must be given the benefit of the doubt in controversial or dubious actions toward civilians would shield them. Thankfully, in this case it didn’t. However, again, Memphis was the rare exception.

Prosecution of police officers who use excessive force are still extremely rare. That includes many of the officers who commit their questionable acts while outfitted with body cameras.

Many police departments that require body cameras have not made clear how the footage of the actions of the officers that are equipped with them will be used or when released. This remains a discretionary judgment call police officials make when there is a controversial use-of-force encounter and the officer involved in the encounter is wearing the body cam.

Police officials everywhere publicly pledge accountability and transparency. They certainly do not want the nightmare of having to endlessly defend their departments from the charges of excessive force. But, from the evidence to date, body cameras have done little to stop that from happening.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

opinion, police body cameras