Washington, DC (TFC) – In the age of police brutality, there are constant calls for justice—from revamping the court system to ending the Drug War and demilitarizing local police departments. From Barack Obama, Congress and the Department of Justice to protesters in the streets, many view body cameras as a quick and effective way to decrease misconduct. In spite of their effectiveness, however, recording tools will never fully resolve the issue of law enforcement abuse.
This isn’t to say that cameras aren’t effective in reducing police violence. In cities like San Diego and Rialto (both in California), instances of police violence have dropped by respective rates of 40% and 88%. The problem, however, is that unless the body cameras are always turned on they are not going to be nearly as effective. In places like Denver and Albuquerque, body cameras make little difference because officers have the option to turn off their recording devices. Some encounter “technical difficulties.”
This problem presents itself across the country. From the District of Columbia to Tennessee, Florida, Michigan and North Dakota, state bills that implement body cameras include caveats to keep some, if not all, records from the public. A recently announced Department of Justice pilot program that grants $20 million for body cameras to local police will only apply to a small fraction of departments, meaning others will still patrol the streets without observation. Even the public records policy outlined by the DOJ program is murky and does not clearly indicate how and when body camera footage will be made public.
Another reason that body cameras deserve a level of skepticism is that police departments and the Department of Justice have already been accused of corporate collusion with a prominent body camera company. Taser Inc.’s stock soared after the DOJ announced its pilot program while sheriffs promote Taser’s products to departments, often taking consulting jobs with the corporation after they retire from law enforcement. While police insist there is no conflict of interest, it is difficult to ensure total accountability when the company supplying the cameras is receiving paychecks from those it claims to hold accountable. If government is going to engage in predictable crony capitalism, at least this manifestation moves in the general direction of accountability.
Whatever the technical effectiveness of body cameras, however, two simple realities prove that they will never solve the problem of brutality.
First, video evidence has shown that a significant portion of violent cops do not care whether or not they are being recorded. This was the case in the Texas cop who shot and killed a friendly pit bull puppy. It was the case with Eric Garner, where video of his death failed to secure so much as an indictment for the accused officer. Countless cases of violent officers caught on film show that simply being recorded is not enough to stop them from committing unnecessary violence.
Second, consider the sharp drop in police violence that occurs when police are forced to use working body cameras. This progress is not to be discounted and rather, is encouraged. Even so, the fact that instances of inappropriate behavior drop specifically when cops are recorded speaks volumes about the intentions of officers.
That they consciously become less violent when they know they are being watched demonstrates not only that they are aware that using such force is wrong, but that if they weren’t being watched, they would likely commit it. Regardless of how effective body cameras may be, the American public should not be comfortable having people “protect and serve” them and enforce “their” laws when those people’s ethics are not intact.
The fact that officers must be surveilled in order to prevent egregious violations of liberties is not an indictment of body cameras, but rather, the institution of government. When authority is held by the barrel of a gun—as cops exemplify—it is unsurprising that those who wish to commit violence will become police officers. They are free to inflict brutality with little worry of punishment because they know that departments, unions, and the justice system will protect them. As such, the solution to police brutality cannot come in totality from recording cops.
Police violence is a symptom of a far deeper problem, which is a government that is as corrupt as police forces themselves. After all, the laws and codes officers enforce—and in doing so, inflict abuse—are passed by those who rule the police: bureaucrats and politicians. The politicians and agencies (from the FDA to the Department of Justice itself) offer no accountability to the public—just like cops. This reflects broad, institutional corruption.
Instead of looking at police brutality as the core problem, the policies that have enabled such a police state must be re-examined. The Drug War is a prime example of this. It has led to America having the highest incarceration rate in the world. It has led to increased police militarization and power. But it is not the only policy that enables police mayhem. According to civil liberties lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, the average American commits three felonies a day.
As the Roman historian, lawyer, and politician, Tacitus, famously noted,
“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”
Because of the lack of accountability that results from an over-bloated government with thousands of pages of federal regulations and rules (not counting state and local laws), those who salivate for violence are drawn to police forces. It is much easier to be a cop committing aggression than it is a civilian when committing violence is “just doing one’s job” in the name of defending the law.
Because of this, it ultimately does not matter whether or not officers wear body cameras. Their use certainly will not increase brutality and will help treat the symptoms of an authoritarian government. However, it can never ameliorate the root of a problem that comes with an all powerful government whose authority is enforced by guns.