Cameras Won’t Stop Police Brutality — Obviously

Eric GarnerIt is extremely rare that technology saves us. An example of this was shown in a highly visible way this week. After the Michael Brown killer Darren Wilson was not indicted based to some extent on conflicting testimony, President Obama called for 50,000 body cameras to be worn by police throughout the country. That was Monday. And on Wednesday, the killer of Eric Garner went unindicted, despite video of the whole thing. Maybe next the president will call for brain implants that will record what police officers were thinking while they are strangling a man on the street or gunning down a 12-year-old in a park. But my guess is that grand juries would still find the officers innocent. After all, the police have such dangerous jobs. And what about black-on-black crime? And who are you to second-guess officers in the heat of the moment when they are staring into the barrel of a pellet gun or focusing on some untaxed cigarettes that may or may not exist?

As regular readers know, I don’t find these police apologia credible. The police really don’t have very dangerous jobs. I heard someone earlier this week say, “Police leave for work in the morning not knowing if they are coming back home that night.” That was said by a liberal! Yet that statement is meaningless in that it applies to literally every person who goes to work in the morning. And it is even more true of fishermen and cab drivers than it is of police officers.

The “What about black-on-black crime?” argument is just a dodge. How is killing Eric Garner over some potential illegal cigarette selling affected by black-on-black crime? What about all the blacks dying from Malaria in Africa? Should we just accept police violence and murder until we wipe out Malaria? The “What about black-on-black crime?” is at best a way to avoid discussing police abuse. At worst, it is a way of subtly placing the blame on blacks, “If those blacks weren’t so violent, the police wouldn’t be killing them all the time!”

The last claim is perhaps the most ridiculous. It is the one that police officers always mention in my experience. But the argument would never be applied to a run of the mill, non-police officer, murderer. No one suggests that we not second guess criminals. “Imagine you had been born into poverty and your father beat you every day and you ran away and lived on the streets from the age of 12 and so got into crime as your only occupational choice and ended up burglarizing a warehouse and were surprised by a police officer pointing a gun at you!” In that context, it would be very reasonable to shoot the officer, but no one has ever avoided prosecution with that argument. What people making such arguments are saying is that the police should never be held accountable.

In the case of Tamir Rice, the outcome will likely be different. I only say that because he was 12-years-old. Also, following the Brown and Garner cases, there will be real pressure on the District Attorney to get at least an indictment. I’d give a conviction for second-degree manslaughter a 50-50 chance. And I’m sure there won’t be an indictment of Officer Timothy Loehmann for murder. Even that would be asking for too much.

What we need to be aware of are two things. One is that we live in a racist society. The police are not any more racist than we are generally. The second thing to keep in mind is that we as a society have decided that the police are above the law. Unless they act in an egregious manner, they are generally clear. Having more video evidence won’t change that. For example, if there had been video of Michael Brown’s killing, I’m sure it would have shown that Brown was, in fact, stumbling and not charging Officer Wilson. But in court, Wilson still would have claimed that he thought Brown was charging — because I’m sure Wilson really did think that Brown was charging! He might have been indicted, but he certainly wouldn’t have been convicted.

Matthew Pratt Guterl wrote an excellent article today at New Republic, Police Cameras Won’t Cure Our National Disease. In it, he discussed various cases of police abusing their authority caught on camera:

As others have noted, there are hundreds of these videos on YouTube, some with millions of views. Advocates of police body cameras might enthuse over this collection, holding it up as proof that sunlight is a natural disinfectant. But it isn’t clear at all that the increasing ubiquity of cameras — or the massive circulation of such videos — has actually decreased the number of men and women of color victimized by overly aggressive policing.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Clearly we do not have to cure racism to make the situation substantially better. I think it would help for police to spend more time in the communities that they police. They should see their jobs as more interfacing with the community rather than “looking for crime.” They should stop thinking of the police force itself as a tribe. I’d love to see an end to the default carrying of guns and tasers. In other words, I’d like to see an entirely different approach to policing. But I’d be happy to just see a small amount of accountability. But I don’t expect to see even that.

2 replies on “Cameras Won’t Stop Police Brutality — Obviously”

  1. Colin Keesee says:

    All other things being equal, I believe that universal police body cameras would be better than not having such a policy. With that in mind, I do not think it will do very much good.

    If you think that your crimes will be excused or even celebrated, the criminals or their close associates will either not mind being chronicled and documented or they may document themselves for the sake of posterity.

    When Klansmen lynched a black man or women, they would frequently pose with their hanged and mutilated trophies. The Nazis meticulously documented their slaughter of millions of civilians. A great deal of written history and artwork are chronicles and outright celebrations of conquest and genocide. If you think that your cause is just and you are confident of victory, we can often times expect oppressors to boast about, write down and artistically recreate their deeds.

    If you are a police officer working in poor and minority neighborhood, I doubt that a body camera will greatly alter one’s behavior. As long as conservative pundits, politicians and the local district attorney are on your side, what does it matter if your latest slaughter is captured in exquisite detail?

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I agree that the body cameras should be done nonetheless. And there is some indication that it will change officer behavior. But you bring up a creepy thought: if we don’t use these cameras to stop police abuse, they will be like Nazi records of people they murdered. The main thing for me is that there is no simple solution. Body cameras could be part of the solution, but if people think they are the solution, they are deluded.

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