To Understand Body Cameras, Imagine A World Without Them
Nov. 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Last week was the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago. The IACP boasts over 20,000 members from over 100 countries. This conference was no small thing, featuring a pandering speech by the Commander-In-Chief himself. Some of the topics covered by the President and the other speakers were gun control, fractured police-community relations and the ever popular issue of body cameras.
Companies like Taser and Wolfcom (two company names that sound like their interest is in serving the public) were in attendance to show off their latest in high-tech body camera equipment. Some of these cameras have video screens built into them, allowing footage to be played back prior to the filling out of any paperwork to foster accuracy so that no, um, “mistakes” are made. There is also the redesigned “buffering” function on the new Taser models.
Most cameras buffer — they save video of what happens just before an officer presses record.
Taser is a leading company in the body camera business. Its buffer function doesn’t include sound.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the company, says that’s to avoid recording what an officer was saying right before an incident.
“It’s video-only at that point. We want to protect the officers’ privacy, because those private conversations could take the context out of what they were saying, especially a joke,” Tuttle said.
Steve is just concerned about context, folks. We all know that context is always enhanced by cutting away potentially relevant information.
As the debate over body cameras rages, though, we must recognize that while there are a host of concerns that will come with the continued implementation of police surveillance systems, the more general question of “should we use body cameras at all?” has a very easy answer.
Now, this is not to say that the issue of body camera surveillance is not complex. It is. It is so complex, in fact, that it has united two groups that agree on nothing else except their total opposition to the use of the body camera. “Real ‘Muricans” who see nothing but virtue and honesty behind every badge oppose body cameras because they will obviously be misused to smear the good names of good cops. Black-flag anarchists who see cops as evil incarnate oppose body cameras because they are certain that body cameras will be used to further expand government power and punish the currently oppressed. It is an odd marriage of agreement on the general position, if not on the reasons for it.
Supporters of body cameras make the argument that we, the public, have become more educated about the true nature of policing entirely because of the evidence obtained through body cameras. There is no way to deny the host of issues, both obvious and hidden, that will make such an increase in police surveillance difficult to properly implement. However, those difficulties should not blind us to the fact that cameras have shown us truths that would have otherwise remained hidden.
And that truly is the tipping point. Body cameras are not all pro and no con. The angle of the camera could give an incomplete picture of the events. Recording from the POV of the officer gives a biased representation of the interaction. If the police have discretion as to when the camera records, they can cut out entire swaths of vital pretext. And what to do when the video just disappears? All of these are valid points. But they simply do not override the fact that video footage of an incident, no matter how brief or contextually skewed, introduces at least some unimpeachable reality into the police narrative.
That reality should not be compared to some future scenario where issues of privacy are still in flux. The reality that body camera footage provides has to be compared to what came before, and what, for the most part, still is. When no video exists, there are only words. A cop swears out allegations, either in document or testimony, and that is it. The judge or jury then has to weigh the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence against the icky feeling that comes with potentially having to call a cop a liar.
Either completely or peripherally, the police are an integral part of almost all criminal prosecutions. And police tend to walk into court with a hell of a lot more credibility than your average citizen. Usually, unless there is affirmative evidence that a cop has lied, then words alone are enough to overcome all of the legal protections we thought we had put in place to ensure that justice is administered fairly and honestly. As body cameras provide a clearer picture into the reality of what is actually going on out there, police credibility is fading faster than the dream of a Mets’ World Series win (sigh).
Prior to the dash and body camera, cops never admitted that they did anything wrong when they killed an unarmed suspect. After cameras started recording, police officers still never admit to wrongdoing, but now, we can see their unequivocal misconduct with our own eyes, and judge accordingly.
We have gone from Andy Griffith to The Wire. For the public at large, they have watched video of former cop Michael Slager shoot a fleeing Walter Scott in the back, still-officer Mark Tiller shoot and kill unarmed Zachary Hammond and recently-fired and aptly named Officer Slam maul a teenage girl over perceived disrespect (seriously, South Carolina, do you need a time out?). People now realize that when the police have used “imminent danger” or “resistance” to justify every fatal shooting or beat-down of a suspect, perhaps these explanations were a matter of self-preservation and not truth. Body cameras allow us to finally say to the police, “prove it.”
Even assuming the camera angle is terrible and starts halfway into a conversation, video still gives us a much clearer account than the officer report. Police officers love to strip as much meaning and context as possible out of their story, so as to avoid the wrath of nosy defense lawyers who won’t just take them at their word. So if we aren’t going to get meaning or context from the police, if we don’t have video, where else are we going to get it from?
Body cameras put police on the defensive, and that is why they do not like them. For every headline that touts police support for body cameras, we see a dozen videos of people being arrested for recording the police. No one would like to be recorded while performing their job, and cops are no exception. However, most of us do not have the ability to put someone in jail with just our words.
Technology now gives us the ability to verify parts of the police narrative that, before video, was consistently (and often wrongly) corroborated by the inherent trustworthiness of cops. Now that the veil of police integrity has been irrevocably pierced, we should embrace body cameras and begin the long process of determining the appropriate ways to weave the evidence they produce into our current legal system.
The words of police have sent people to jail, prison and the grave. As we move forward, those words will have to be backed up by video evidence. And that is a huge step in the right direction.