Welcome To The Police Body Cam Discussion

President Barack Obama, in the wake of Ferguson, announced that he’s discovered police body cams.

The Obama administration wants to set aside $263 million to improve law enforcement training and fund the purchase of 50,000 cameras that police officers can wear on their bodies.

The White House proposed the move in a review of local-law-enforcement funding, released on Monday. It arrives one week after a Grand Jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of teenager Michael Brown, a decision that has sparked widespread upheaval across the country.

The announcement suggested myriad initiatives, like the end of providing excessed weapons of mass destruction to local police “just in case,” but as Trevor Timm notes, it was just empty rhetoric to calm the natives, with no actual change intended.  But the body cams, 50,000 of them (maybe), raised the specter of the remarkably successful Rialto, California experiment.

What? Do I see you yawning?  Sure, you know all about body cams.  You appreciate their benefit, both to the police and the public. You recognize their limitations, that they are not a panacea.  You’ve paid close attention to Radley Balko’s detailed discussion of body cams, and even read a bit about them here.  Significantly, you’ve come to realize how video has changed our appreciation of police interactions.

Guess what?  There are a great many others who haven’t yet climbed the learning curve, and now that the White House has thrown its weight behind body cams, they are first starting to give it some thought.  And, much to my consternation, it’s like watching them reinvent the wheel.  A really weirdly unround wheel.

At Hercules and the Umpire, Senior Nebraska federal judge Richard Kopf added his voice in support of body cams.

As I have written before, most of the time I trust cops. That’s why I am very much in favor of requiring cops to wear and use body cameras when interacting with citizens.

Not to be too unappreciative, but I remind the judge that police are citizens too.  It’s often awkward to describe interactions between police and non-cops, as there really isn’t a great word to differentiate between the badged and the unbadged, but cops are not military, they are not space aliens, they are not a better breed of human. They’re citizens with guns and shields. And Judge Kopf’s implicit trust.

While body cameras pose all sorts of problems, and are not a panacea, if the tragedy in Missouri produces a national consensus that cops should film themselves in action and the feds should step up to the plate with money, that will be a very good thing. Besides, I just can’t wait to see a street dealer captured on tape claiming his right to privacy was violated during a “stop and frisk” as crack falls out of his pants.

Some of you will fall for this feeble attempt to goad the unwitting into the age-old dropsy argument, but I am on to this crafty old man’s scheme.  Sure, Judge. That’s what it may show, as the cops toss an otherwise unremarkable young black man against a wall for walking with hands in his pockets, and I will relish in silent glee the grant of suppression of the devil crack.

But the judge knows.  He knows that the cameras show the very things that so many have complained of for so long, but were dismissed with a wave of a robed arm because there was never any evidence to prove it beyond the defendant’s word.  And judges trust cops.

If and when body cams become ubiquitous, as well they must if we’re to move beyond the top ten arguments of why police are more credible than anyone else in America, there must be recognition of their limitations.  Not just the usual police claim that “the video doesn’t show everything” when it’s used against police, but is “conclusive” when used against anyone else.

Rather, we will need to adjust the jurisprudence to accommodate “all sorts of problems,” ranging from the videotaping of complete interactions, so that the beating isn’t done off camera while the confession is captured in high definition with Dolby sound, or that the video doesn’t go inexplicably missing except when it nails a defendant’s coffin shut.  There’s a reason why there needs to be the “missing video” presumption.

So it’s great that President Obama has discovered the utility of body cams.  And it’s great that there are so many people now discussing them for the first time.  And it’s great that there will be interest in this tool, this means of both safeguarding police from false claims and the public from police, from all quarters.

When Rudy Giuliani and Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump agree that cops should wear and use body cameras, it is hard to argue against the proposition.

Because everyone cares deeply about the diverse views of Rudy and Crump, right?  But the point is that police body cams are something we all can get behind.  Hell, even the guys who revived the cause of death, “excited delirium” at Taser International, are smiling, as Taser is one of the largest manufacturers of police body cams, and they stand to make a bloody fortune.

Now that everyone who doesn’t read SJ or Balko or any other website that has discussed this issue with depth, nuance and some degree of sophistication, has discovered the merit of body cams, maybe the discussion about them can leap forward to how to maximize their utility for the protection of everyone, and to eliminate as many of the problems with them so they serve to make this a safer and saner world for all of us?

Or will we be relegated to sitting back and watching as the wheel gets reinvented by the unsophisticated manipulated by interested parties with axes to grind?  For the third time in this post alone, I repeat that police body cams are not a panacea.  That doesn’t mean we can’t make them as utilitarian and fair as possible.  So welcome, n00bs, to the body cam discussion. Hope it helps.


6 thoughts on “Welcome To The Police Body Cam Discussion

  1. Brian M. Stewart

    Thank you for this good discussion on body cams with links to so many resources.
    [Ed. Note: This is not the way to try to insert an incident into a comment that you want to publicize here. Deleted.]

    I hope that the use of body cams doesn’t just change how individuals interact, but helps to change the tactics police use to combat crime. Thank you for helping me frame my arguments as I advocate for ways to prevent violence in police interactions (both committed by and against officers).

  2. Jake DiMare

    I’m probably vastly overestimating my worth in your world when I say: I think you know I’m pro-body cam. That said, I find it sadly impossible to argue with your central point in light of the Eric Garner announcement today.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s understandable. I will address the Garner “no true bill” and video issues tomorrow. Keep an open mind.

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