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Police Departments Having Problems With Body Cameras Are Learning What the Black Community Knew All Along

body camerasPolice body cameras were one of the most popular solutions to police brutality that surfaced in the wake of the killings of unarmed Black men, but police departments that have already implemented the cameras are finding out what the Black community knew all along: Body cameras are not a panacea.

Though they have received considerable hype, police body cameras are not the end-all, be-all solution to improving policing and preventing racial profiling.

A 2012 study by a police department in Rialto, California, helped popularize body cameras as a solution to the attacks by police officers on unarmed Black men.

Researchers concluded that in the Rialto study, officers who were wearing the cameras used force far less often because the number of violent incidents dropped by more than 50 percent.

Those numbers seemed impressive and many people ran with it.

One researcher, however, is encouraging people to continue asking questions and continue digging deeper than just one study in a small department.

“The Rialto study is one study, and it could be a fluke,” Alex Sutherland, of the University of Cambridge who was actually one of the researchers behind the Rialto study, told NPR. “It’s a small department. The police chief was kind of involved in implementation.”

Sutherland is not suggesting that the cameras don’t work, but he merely thinks the public needs to be more inquisitive about the small amount of evidence supporting police body cameras.

Even more important, however, was the simple fact that some citizens and the police forces are usually going to see things differently.

It’s what the Black community learned the hard way after a grand jury failed to indict New York officer Daniel Pantaleo after he put Staten Island father Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. Despite the entire incident being caught on tape, including Garner telling officers 11 times that he couldn’t breathe, a grand jury decided the officers didn’t use any excessive force against Garner.

Even police dashboard cameras have been at the center of controversy and prove the difference between what an officer sees and what a citizen sees when reviewing the footage.

Last fall, a South Carolina man was pulled over by police and asked to get his license after he stepped out of the car. When the man reached back into his car to get his license, the officer ordered him to get out of the car and began firing within a matter of seconds.

For the Black community, it was another clear sign that officers are too willing to fire away at unarmed Black men for no reason.

For officers, the man’s sudden movement seemed unnatural and warranted defensive action by the officer.

“I felt my stomach tense because I’ve seen that — and this has nothing to do with whether the incident was justified or not — but, I’ve seen that kind of quick movement before, where people have emerged with a weapon,” San Francisco police Sgt. Adam Plantinga said of the controversial footage to NPR.

Plantinga explained that officers look out for certain types of behavior that could indicate a suspect is prone to becoming violent but that’s not something the average person is going to consider when watching the footage from body cameras or police dashboards.

“They may wipe their hands on their pants, they may lower their head [or] lower their jaw to protect their neckline, sort of unconscious human behavior that means that there could be violence at any time,” he explained.

In the midst of all this, Plantinga said he is actually in support of police body cameras but thinks people will need to keep in mind that even body cameras won’t always provide the entire story.

There are also concerns about how police body cameras could impact officer morale and recruitment.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer, said a department with police body cameras is not the type of environment he would recommend anyone enter.

O’Donnell told NPR that “the whole atmosphere tells you right at the outset that if there’s a bad ending, you’re gonna be called a murderer, you’re gonna get death threats in your home.”

It’s possible that other potential recruits could feel the same way.

Perhaps a greater concern, however, is how to deal with issues of privacy.

Without a doubt, every time someone is seemingly, unjustly killed by an officer, the public is going to want access to the footage.

Police Chief Kevin Treadway says that’s just not right.

body camera catches death of Arizona police officer Last month, a Flagstaff, Arizona, police officer was fatally shot when he reported to the scene of a domestic dispute call. The entire incident was caught on the police body camera and local media immediately entered requests for the video under the state’s public records law.

While the clip was edited to stop just before the weapon is shown on video, Treadway still feels like releasing that footage was a violation of the officer’s family’s privacy.

“I guess if you’re asking me the question: Does the public right to know, in this particular case, outweigh the pretty significant trauma that showing this on the nightly news has for the members of the family? I have to say no,” he told NPR.

These are all concerns that prove two things: Body cameras alone won’t be enough to bring significant change to policing, and the community will need to understand that body cameras will come with their own set of rules and regulations.

Not every video of someone’s death will be or should be released to the public, and not every video will capture the full spectrum of the moments leading up to someone’s death.

At the same time, officers cannot point to something as simple as feeling uncomfortable in an environment where they are being recorded as a way to halt the implementation of new technology that could, at least in part, help lead to more police accountability.


What people are saying

10 thoughts on “Police Departments Having Problems With Body Cameras Are Learning What the Black Community Knew All Along

  1. Hank Wilson says:

    Cops need to wear cameras and the majority of the tax paying American wants them to wear cameras, and that my friend is the end of this story.

  2. Vee Von Wong says:

    Cops privacy? It's not their bathroom being videoed. It's a public place (in most cases) and an officer is a public servant. Paid with money from tax payers pockets. They don't get a choice.

  3. Hank Wilson says:

    When there is ambiguity in a cop's split decision even on camera and it's not due to reckless behavior by the cop's actions then I will always give them the benefit of the doubt. It ain't easy out there, however, we have to weedout the scared cops. Those who are scared and needing only job security.

  4. JF Williams says:

    The only good answer at this point is for the black community to police itself and/or field police officers from that community.

    But a lot of black neighborhoods don't have a "community" impulse like the Chinese and Vietnamese communities. They are often weak in terms of communal spirit and togetherness.

    Which is why outsiders can come in and continually harm black people unjustly and more often than not face no fear of punishment.

  5. Hank Wilson says:

    You're 100% correct…and we African American need to return to policing ourselves again. However, whites are always screaming that African Americans need to reduce crime in their communities, but we know from an historical perspective that whites fear African Americans going at it alone and being sucessful too. The white-man, he will destroy our successful African American communites. For example Greenwood was a black community separated from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was known as the "The Black Wall Street" in 1921, however white-jealousy became white racist-terrorist when they used military planes to bomb and destroy our thriving community. By the way, that was the first time that planes had been used on American soil to kill its citizens. So, we have to be careful because what whites are saying out loud is not really whats in their hearts. They're forever wanting to maintain control over the ethnic African people.

  6. Amali Mbuyu says:

    We did that, ummm remember the "Black Panthers?" What it did was increase the fear that white people have of black skin. Of course, you know what followed.

  7. JF Williams says:

    Amali Mbuyu And it was black people who lack the communal spirit which enabled the original black panthers to be destroyed. It was black people who chose a job with Mr. Charlie to help break up the black panthers.

    So your comment really doesn't invalidate what I say. It only adds proof to what I say.

  8. Craig J. Bolton says:

    Heard this story first on NPR. It is a really bad story. What the first experiment showed was that a universal use of body cameras by police COMBINED WITH A WILLINGNESS OF POLICE SUPERVISORS TO MAKE SURE THAT THE CAMERAS WERE ON AND RECORDING IN ALL INSTANCES AND WERE NOT "ACCIDENTALLY" ERASED SUBSEQUENTLY. lowered all sorts of unnecessary "incidents." Yes, after the fact excuses and interpretations will still exist, but cameras provide more objective evidence than exists otherwise. They just do. Stories disparaging such steps are counterproductive if you goal is justice. Of course that isn't your goal if your per-existing conclusion is that police are always right.

  9. Dione Wilson says:

    Hank Wilson I hope one day that you find yourself on the receiving end of that split second decision so you can get a clearer picture.

  10. JF Williams Thanks to all who helped me!

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