Beyond Body Cameras
There’s a debate going on over the merits of police using body cameras while on the job. At this point I’m not convinced one way or the other on the long terms benefits.
The advantages are obvious: audio/visual recordings of the kinds of encounters that have left several Black men dead at the hands of White police officers in the last several months would give us something other than the killer’s word to go on. A public parsing of what exactly went down between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson has taken up a lot of the oxygen in the room while yielding relatively little new insight. Rather than arguing over policing policy, the war on drugs, or the legal system in which the aftermath of them is adjudicated, a lot of time and energy has been invested in one theory or another about what really happened.
And in the instance of Eric Garner, a video showing how he was killed has been crucial in expanding the coalition of people who think reforms of one kind or another are urgent. It’s not as if the police only just started killing people with impunity. If it weren’t for the fact that so many shootings have happened on video this year, I doubt it would still be the national story it has recently become.
I am not interested in aiding the growth of state surveillance, however. And I also agree that body cameras are not un-problematic when it comes to issues of privacy, not just for the public at large but also for the individual officers who would end up being required to wear them. The tragedies and injustice on display here are systemic, and go far beyond the agents tasked with enforcing that system.
Which is why not getting derailed by the body camera question is more important than whatever the particular cost-benefit analysis turns out to be. The President is working to secure the funding necessary to eat half the cost of supplying police departments with cameras. That’s, for the moment at least, a distraction. It doesn’t come close to rectifying widespread inequality before the law. It’s an embarrassing attempt at appeasement and shamefully inadequate. To support this limited action is to accept the possibilities allowed by the current regime instead of asserting new ones. Even if you’re for putting a body cam on ever cop, now is not the time to be for putting a body cam on every cop. It’s too early to tacitly admit defeat and settle for so little.
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