In 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, voices nationwide demanded concrete actions be taken to stem the repeated and indiscriminate killing of Black and brown people by police. In short order, a chorus of politicians and activists began calling for every police officer in the country to be fitted with a body camera.
This is not the first time we’ve seen police use deceptive tactics, like concealing the video and blurring the truth, to avoid accountability.
The stated goal of such cameras was to increase police transparency and accountability and, in doing so, perhaps change the behavior of officers when interacting with people of color in the U.S. But time and again, body and other police-fitted cameras have instead been used to drive false narratives about police-involved shootings.
The recent case of Christian Hall in Pennsylvania is illustrative. There, police arrived on the scene to find Hall, a Chinese American teenager, standing on the edge of a bridge. The police successfully coaxed Hall off the edge, but as Hall approached the police with what police said appeared to be a gun in one of his raised hands, the officers shot and killed him.
When the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office released footage from police vehicle cameras, a blurred redaction concealed the moment of the shooting. But new unredacted footage obtained by Spotlight PA and NBC News from Hall’s parents, whose lawyer received them through a subpoena,shows a very different picture. The unredacted video clearly shows that Hall never lowered his hands and never made an aggressive move toward the police. Yet the police panicked and shot him.
Sadly, this is not the first time we’ve seen police use deceptive tactics, like concealing the video and blurring the truth, to avoid accountability. (The district attorney’s office has released a statement saying it stood by its finding that the shooting was justified.)
For two years, Louisiana state troopers kept secret footage that showed they blatantly lied about the circumstances of Ronald Greene’s 2019 killing until it was released earlier this year. Or, as in the case of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the legal standard for the public to receive access to footage is often so high that such efforts seem predetermined to fail.
Some police departments have even hired public relations firms to edit their body camera videos with a pro-police spin. This essentially turns cameras from a police transparency and accountability mechanism into a police propaganda tool to block the truth from getting out.
When body cameras were being pushed following the killing of Brown in 2014, most of us understood that attaching a tiny camera to the uniforms of police officers would not produce major improvements in our racist policing and criminal legal systems. But it was the kind of quick, easy fix — requiring not much more than an outlay of cash — that many officials latched on to it out of a desire to produce some progress. Combined with the availability of federal grants, this drove the movement toward body camera implementation.
Police departments, and even more so police unions, were not initially big fans of body cameras, but they rightly determined that the bodycam train had left the station. Given their inability to block their roll out, in many instances they turned to their next best option: preventing the public from seeing the footage.
The tactic worked in some but not all cases. Certain states, like New Hampshire and Ohio, passed transparency-focused body camera laws that support the right of the public to see important bodycam video, such as that capturing police uses of force or interactions involving police misconduct.
Others, however, like North Carolina and South Carolina, passed laws that are decidedly anti-transparency. Laws like theirs only give people appearing in the video the right to access it, prohibiting the general public and journalists from obtaining it. Even those with a right to access footage often must convince a judge to release it, a time-consuming and costly process. People targeted by police, of course, rarely have the money to retain an attorney to file this kind of suit.
Also, there’s a dramatic discrepancy between the public’s ability to access and share body camera footage and that of the police, who sometimes can view it even before they’re interviewed about possible misconduct. This allows them to distribute it publicly whenever it benefits them, and release edited portions along with misleading descriptions of what was withheld from the public.
The result of these mixed body camera laws — ones that promote the public’s interest in transparency and those that promote law enforcement’s interest in secrecy — has been a mixed body camera experience for America. Cameras, be they police-operated or private, have rarely led to officers being disciplined for their misconduct.
But video footage has proven more beneficial in educating the broader public and planting the seeds for political change. When tape of the LAPD beating of Rodney King was captured in 1991, its creation via a handheld video camera was almost a fluke. Today, thanks to the widespread adoption of police cameras and the use of smartphones, footage documenting what communities of color have endured for centuries is now commonplace, and has indisputably opened the eyes of the rest of the nation to these abuses.
This shift in public opinion is building support for policies that reduce the role, resources and power of police — and creating the political space for deeper structural changes like those adopted in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, this year.
Any member of the public, including journalists, should be able to request access to police body camera footage that depicts police use of force or other alleged misconduct.
If police body cameras are to be a tool of transparency and accountability instead of just generating raw footage for police flacks to disclose selectively, there are a few simple rules that should be a part of every law and policy that governs police camera footage.
First, any member of the public, including journalists, should be able to request access to police body camera footage that depicts police use of force or other alleged misconduct. Second, where a subject of body camera footage is killed, shot by a firearm or grievously injured, the requested video should be provided within days. Third, law enforcement should be prohibited from using ill-fitting public release exceptions to deny the public access.
However, where body camera laws are more focused on maintaining police control of the footage and protecting the reputation of the police department, body camera use should be discontinued. Without such guarantees of transparency, body cameras are just another propaganda tool for the police departments that buy them, and a waste of taxpayer money that does nothing to expose police wrongdoing.