If Black Lives Matter then the conversation regarding police body cameras must move beyond debate. Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, Charleston, Tulsa, Baltimore, and now Cleveland again, have become marred by news of police officers claiming the lives of unarmed black men. The use of deadly force is far too often an evaluation made solely through the vantage point of the officer. And as the old adage goes, “dead men tell no tales.”
To date, what we know is Eric Gardner was unarmed when strangled by police. Mike Brown was unarmed when shot in the back by police. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun when shot by police. Walter Scott was unarmed when shot in the back by police. Eric Harris was unarmed and handcuffed when shot in the back by a volunteer deputy. Freddie Gray was unarmed and handcuffed when he died in the custody of police. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were unarmed when officers thought they heard a gunshot and fired 137 bullets killing them. All different situations, but the common denominator remains; unarmed and black.
Further, the proliferation of camera phones and social media is the only difference between the black men and women above and those that came before them. These advances shed light on an epidemic which many suspect is rooted in racial injustice and a false (albeit ingrained) belief that black men in particular are inherently dangerous. If you agree with me, that Black Men
Bare the Burden of Other People’s Suspicions, then laws must be enacted to help alleviate the potentially deadly consequences that remain.
Legislatures across the country are considering whether the aforementioned fatalities could have been prevented if Police Body Cameras were utilized. President Barack Obama has proposed a three-year, $263 million investment package that will work to equip participating law enforcement agencies with body cameras and curtail misconduct from both citizens and officers. In an attempt to increase body camera usage, Florida State Senator Chris Smith and Representative Shevrin Jones passed legislation that removed secondary privacy concerns held by Florida law enforcement departments. By dismissing excuses to delay implementation, the legislators hope to charge police departments into action. These type of initiatives go a long way, but not far enough. If body cameras save lives, they should be a requirement, not just an option.
I am not suggesting that body cameras would eliminate these kind of stories from headlines. I am also not idealistic enough to believe that video footage alone will result in convictions (i.e. Eric Garner). However, I do believe that post-police shooting footage (1) creates transparency; (2) equalizes available evidence; (3) minimizes excessive police force; and (4) reduces unjustifiable complaints against officers. These factors are significant because they illuminate the fact that body cameras work both ways and help bridge the proverbial gap between varying descriptions of the same moment in time.
In 2012, the police department in Rialto, California, and the University of Cambridge-Institute of Criminology (UK), examined whether body cameras would have any impact on the number of complaints against officers or on officers’ use of force. The study found that there was a 60 percent reduction in officer use of force incidents following body camera use. During the experiment, the shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use of force incidents as shifts with cameras. The study also found that there was an 88 percent reduction in the number of citizen complaints. Further, a study conducted in Mesa, Arizona, also found that body cameras caused a reduction in complaints against officers. Officers not using body cameras had nearly three times as many complaints as officers using cameras.
The fact remains that there is significant mistrust and tension between police officers and black communities. Today we are seeing an estranged relationship between law enforcement and the black community televised 24 hours a day and a demographic in significant pain. The riots and marches across the country are a cry from people who want to know their pain is being addressed. Body cameras as a requirement for police, have the potential to save lives and restore hope and faith in a system that has caused civil unrest. Transparency is key, because for every one incident caught on video, there are multiple that are invisible.
Sean is the president of Pittman Law Group, P.L. a corporate law and governmental consulting firm with offices in Tallahassee and Riviera Beach, Florida.