Cop Cameras Are a Band-Aid Fix for a Centuries-Old Wound

Amadou Diallo.

John Crawford.

Sean Bell.

Yvette Smith.

Aiyana Jones.

Tamir Rice.

Michael Brown.

Eric Garner.

These names represent a mere fraction of an ever-growing list of unarmed black men, women, and children who have been murdered by police officers. Mounting activist voices and growing protests have prompted President Obama to announce his proposal to equip our nation’s police officers with 50,000 body cameras. The plan was praised by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill as, “Exactly the right move.” But after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD Officer who killed Eric Garner on video, Obama’s plan leaves others asking, “Why even bother with cameras?”

The non-indictment of Eric Garner, while unsurprising, was particularly disheartening because in some ways it was the case that seemed most likely to bring justice. Garner’s death was caught on video, making it seemingly indisputable. The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Choke holds have been banned in the NYPD for 20 years. Even Bill O’Reilly begrudgingly admitted that perhaps Garner didn’t deserve to die.

But none of that matters. None of it will begin to matter until the system acknowledges that people of color are actually capable of being victimized. Or more simply: that they are human. It’s past time to acknowledge that this racist system isn’t broken. From police officers to judges and juries to for-profit prisons, the system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do:

Perpetuate injustice.

Albert Burneko wrote last night:

The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders. This is America. It is not broken. It is doing what it does.

Body cameras for police officers will only help stem the tide of racialized police brutality when cops stop painting African-American men as superhuman threats (and juries stop buying into their story). When we stop erring in favor of the upward-end of the power differential and start listening to those who have been victimized. But most importantly, when law enforcement agencies, justice systems, and everyone in between simply starts recognizing that black lives matter.

Featured Image By Gerard Flynn

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. Exposure to all this has only solidified for me the importance of intersectionality.

    When society sees black bodies as objects to fear or to exploit within the system the uncaring death of thousands is the result.

    When society sees woman as objects to excite or as decorations we end up with rape culture.

    When society sees your sexuality as their business and weird if it’s not standard vanilla we end up with discrimination and death for gay and trans people and those outside the norm.

    When society sees “the other” as undesirable if they can’t give you something we end up hating immigrants, or foreigners, or the poor, or those we see as damaged in some way and it makes them disposable.

    As a cishet white American male I am dripping with privilege but I don’t want to give it up, and while I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who say they would give up theirs it’s easy to claim something that will never happen. No, I don’t wish to give up my privilege I just wish that privileges that I have were standard issue for everyone.

    I shouldn’t have to wish that my very existence would make me subject to harassment or possible death to be decent. I shouldn’t need to want to experience molestation or even sexual violence for simply walking down the street or death and rape threats for having an opinion to want that shit to stop. I shouldn’t need to experience homelessness or the alienation that can come from mental issues to realize that it sucks to be there with no help. And I shouldn’t have to experience discrimination for my lifestyle to believe that we should treat all people as human with all the rights that should entail.

    No, I don’t want to give up my privilege and anyone who truly wants to is a fool. What I want is not the elimination or ignoring of differences, what I want is for our differences to not matter in how we treat each other. Privilege us all with human dignity.

    I like Matt Dillahunty’s improvement on the golden rule that has been called the platinum rule. “Treat others as they would like to be treated” or alternately “Be excellent to each other”.

    1. Yes. Sadly, starting with all-male Arab delegations hijacking women’s conferences to Palestine in the 1970s and going all the way through animal rights terrorism against Indians and Suey Park leading an online harassment campaign against Indian activists and the Palestinians still attempting to hijack discussions on race in America and indigenous issues, intersectionality is dead.

  2. “Murder” is distinguished from other forms of homicide by a requirement of premeditation on the part of the perpetrator. Are you claiming as fact that police officers planned the deaths of all of these people?

  3. Obama’s plan leaves others asking, “Why even bother with cameras?”

    Well, I would like to think that this helps make us all “eye-witnesses” instead of having to rely on actual eye-witnesses to discern the truth. As noted in the article, “Even Bill O’Reilly begrudgingly admitted that perhaps Garner didn’t deserve to die.” If this had not been recorded, would O’Reilly have admitted as much? I’m doubtful. I think it’s a step in the right direction, even if it seems a very small step. It’s better than no step at all, IMO.

    1. It’s a step, I’ll give you that. But that step means nothing without confronting the roots of our racist systems.

      1. True, but we need to, as Eisenhower most likely never said, “get it all on record now…because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened” before we can even begin to confront it.

  4. I disagree that cameras are only a band-aid. I agree that the real problem is much deeper and harder to confront than a mere lack of concrete evidence (such as in the Michael Brown) case, which the Garner case illustrates. And I agree that these problems can’t be overcome until our system starts to operate as though black lives matter.

    But cameras can be a useful tool in doing that. Beyond reducing claims of excessive force, cameras will enable us to see the humanity at the heart of the case. And Garner is actually proof of that, regardless of what the prosecutor decided to do. It is easy enough for people (who want to do so) to believe that Michael Brown was a huge, aggressive “demon” in the events that resulted in his killing. But no one (except those who are hopelessly racist) can see it in the Garner case, thanks to the camera. We are left to face the reality that there was a large, but scared (not scary) black man being murdered by the police. Without the camera, there would be allegations that he attacked and could not be brought down otherwise. With the camera, those claims (largely) evaporate.

    And so if the goal is to make people see how broken the system is (or as you put it, that the system is designed to seek a broken, injust result), then the camera on Garner and the grand jury decision help people see the problem much more than in the Brown case. Quite frankly, an indictment might have made it easy for people to believe that the system works when blacks are truly victims, and to dismiss the controversy altogether. Now, the reality of the system — which you accurately describe in my opinion — is hard to ignore. And we have a camera to thank for that.

  5. Boomer — I presume you’re a racist troll, but no, murder does not mean that. Negligent Homicide specifically acknowledges that you didn’t necessarily intend to kill the person, but if you go all Yosemite Sam and start shooting your sixguns out your window on 5th Avenue during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, you’ll be charged with murder. Hell, the Christian Science parents who refuse to bring their kid to the ER when he’s having appendicitis or burning up with some fever are charged with murder, and the Supreme Court has upheld those convictions. So in answer to your question, two possibilities: 1) Yes, racist shitstain cops really do enjoy murdering black men, it’s what they’ve been hired and trained to do, and it’s why they joined the police in the first place, to be murderous bullies, and they’re the worst human beings in America, yet we load them up with killing hardware and call it safety; and 2) even the better sort of modern cop couldn’t care less — they may not mean to kill the unarmed teenager, but if they do, no big deal, the kid stole something or his registration had expired or he backsassed me, so, you know, he was a thug who had it coming, and if I hit the heart rather than the leg with my 6th or 10th shot, well, ooops.

    So now, there’s not always intention to kill when someone fires a deadly weapon at another human. Sure, 99 percent of the time there is. But with that 1 percent, it’s just negligence rather than intent. But it’s still murder, you fuckwit.

    1. Just to piggyback, in New York, the statute for murder in the second degree includes behaving with depraved indifference to human life and killing someone (regardless of intent) during the commission of another serious felony such as an armed robbery. Reckless behavior where a potential death is foreseeable is also covered under most homicide statutes.

    2. Your comment is a tirade against people who make deadly presumptions, yet yours starts with one and condemns an entire class of civil servants based on one.

      Perhaps that’s related to your poor comprehension skills, as demonstrated by your lack of response to my question. Most people understand “murder” to include the element of premeditation. This is not a legal blog, so I understood the writer to be using the term colloquially, which is why I referred to premeditation in my question.

      You don’t know me, or anything about me, yet somehow you seem to’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a racist apologist for police brutality. The truth is I could care less about the color of the people involved. I’m just as outraged when a black cop kills a black suspect, and you should be too.

      Are there racist cops out there? Absolutely. Do some of them act on their racism? Probably. But there is a much evidence to support the notion that racial disparities in crime (as both victim and perpetrator) and the way law enforcement interacts with minorities has less to do with skin color and more to do with being poor combined with official policies that have evolved as a result of the drug war. The kind of policy, for example, that values the preservation of evidence over the safety of human life, ultimately leading to “no-knock” police raids and the deaths of innocent people like Aiyana Jones.

      Lets do a bit of shaving with Occam’s Razor here, shall we? Did the cop who killed Aiyana Jones indulge a racist fantasy about killing a little black girl, or did he simply panic and make a deadly mistake during a violent, chaotic, high-adrenaline (yet done-by-the-book) police action? Was Gescard Isnora, the cop who initiated the shooting of Sean Bell fulfilling a racist desire to kill a young black man? Well, he may have been fulfilling a fantasy to kill someone, but I don’t know how it could be classified as racist given Isnora is himself African American.

      As I said, I don’t doubt there are racists who act on their racism among the police force. But I believe articles such as this one detract attention from the issues that have a much greater impact on the problem of police abuse.

      And also, go fuck yourself.

      1. You miss an entire body of study that shows that the drug war has largely targeted blacks and hispanics (mostly blacks) by a large margin. The fact that blacks convicted of drug possessions with much stiffer sentences vs. whites despite the figures that show drug usage rates are roughly similar between the populations shows a SYSTEMIC problem.

        The fact is, regardless of their own perceived intent, police officers are continually upholding racist tropes, largely rendered invisible because of our contention that this is a post-racial “color blind” society, when in fact, just by seeing the differences on how so many in the media portray differing suspects (i.e. Adam Lanza was troubled, Mike Brown was a thug). I had a nice long discussion with a corrections officer at Riker’s Island once where I pointed out that despite his best intentions, how he viewed his inmates (in this case, women) were still skewed by his own upbringing in mostly white middle class surroundings. Of course he thinks he’s trying to do the right thing. Few people are mustache twirling Nazi supervillains intent on a racially segregated hegemony.

        While police brutality is an issue that can affect almost anyone, no amount of ignoring the issue of race alters the fact that a disproportionate, lethal burden of brutality is faced by people of color because cops are acting out our system’s inherently racist policies. By claiming that this detracts “from the issues that have much greater impact on the problem of police abuse” is itself a derailment of the issue of who receives the greater impact of the problem of police abuse.

        I would suggest an excellent breakdown by the lawyer Michelle Alexander in her book ‘The New Jim Crow’ that connects all the layers of America’s inability to admit to its racist tendencies to how law enforcement policy is made and carried out.

        1. Again, I don’t doubt there are true racists serving as police officers in America. But I would give more weight to intent than you. Calling someone a racist because they are ignorant will neither change their mind nor motivate them to educate themselves.

          My opinions regarding the issue are best summed up by this Harvard study:


          Although racial discrimination emerges some of the time at some stages of criminal justice processing-such as juvenile justice-there is little evidence that racial disparities result from systematic, overt bias. Discrimination appears to be indirect, stemming from the amplification of initial disadvantages over time, along with the social construction of “moral panics” and associated political responses. The “drug war” of the 1980s and 1990s exacerbated the disproportionate representation of blacks in state and federal prisons. Race and ethnic disparities in violent offending and victimization are pronounced and long-standing. Blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, suffer much higher rates of robbery and homicide victimization than do whites. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black males and females. These differences result in part from social forces that ecologically concentrate race with poverty and other social dislocations. Useful research would emphasize multilevel (contextual) designs, the idea of “cumulative disadvantage” over the life course, the need for multiracial conceptualizations, and comparative, cross-national designs.

          How would the average person’s conception of minorities be different if so many weren’t branded “criminals” because of insane drug laws? How would the average person’s conception of minorities be different if illegal drug-trade violence were eliminated or greatly reduced?

          1. I find intent isn’t something to emphasize when we’re talking about privilege and systemic violence. I don’t doubt that most cops aren’t, or believe themselves not to be, overt racists. That has never been the claim. Implicit biases exist like they do among general populace.

            Automatic Preference for White Americans:
            Eliminating the Familiarity Explanation

            The cop that texted the n-word that was made public is hardly as much of a problem as the cop that doesn’t realize that perhaps they might hold certain biases.

            Regarding more of Sampson and Lauritsen, I found a pretty good breakdown of the numbers on this blog post, that would somewhat suggest an agreement with them and yourself (though I think the blog too ignores certain issues as does the study ). However, the author demonstrates that “no evidence” of bias is too strong even from his point of view:

            It would be nice to say that this shows the criminal justice system is not disproportionately harming blacks, but unfortunately it doesn’t come anywhere close to showing anything of the sort. There are still many ways it can indirectly harm blacks without being explicitly racist. Anatole France famously said that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor people from begging for bread and sleeping under bridges”, and in the same way that the laws France cites, be they enforced ever so fairly, would still disproportionately target poor people, so other laws can, even when fairly enforced, target black people. The classic example of this is crack cocaine – a predominantly black drug – carrying a higher sentence than other whiter drugs. Even if the police are scrupulously fair in giving the same sentence to black and white cokeheads, the law will still have a disproportionate effect.

            The cumulative affects of “stop & frisk” style profiling programs are not addressed in the Harvard study. They do not necessarily yield “unfair” arrests, which would leave them out of the study, but these policies do manage to further estrange cops from the populace they are policing. An individual having a criminal records in areas already high in poverty only reinforce the cycle of unemployment and crime, further constraining minorities with these “ecological” concentrations.

            The police are the enforcing arm of these ecological and cumulative disadvantages. The cited Harvard study does clearly state: ‘But it is in the juvenile justice system that race discrimination appears most widespread-minorities (and youth in predominantly minority jurisdictions) are more likely to be detained and receive out-of-home placements than whites regardless of “legal” consideration’. There is no special “juvenile” police on patrol, thus career criminality is witnessed by the same police from childhood onward. So yes, it is a cumulative and multilayered problem, but this does not change the fact that racism DOES affect police shootings, from soup to nuts.

          2. Long story short, even judging by the language of the study, Sampson and Lauritsen does not eliminate the idea of bias, merely that is more indirect. Ignoring it, however, doesn’t change that it is there and important to address.

  6. Correction: The truth is I could care less about the color of the people involved. I’m just as outraged when a black cop needlessly kills a black suspect, and you should be too.

  7. The point that there are deeper social problems underlying police violence, particularly racialized police violence, is well taken. In fact, I think the metaphor of a “centuries-old wound” understates the case, if anything; I’d say it’s more akin to an active, malignant cancer.

    But I think characterizing police body cameras as a “band-aid fix” is excessively dismissive of a partial solution that growing evidence suggests actually improves outcomes in community-police relations, particularly if applied as part of a more comprehensive reform of police policies and tactics. See for example the DOJ-commissioned study Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence. It notes that there is as yet “not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation,” but that “[m]ost of the empirical studies [of police body cameras] document a reduction in citizen complaints against the police,” and that a possible explanation is “a consequence of improved behavior (i.e., the civilizing effect [of being recorded]) – whether it is citizen behavior, officer behavior, or both.” (My suspicion is that it’s probably primarily police behavior which improves with body cameras, as they’re the ones more aware of being recorded, but I’m only guessing.) Also relevant are resources on the Smart Policing Initiative website, which is focused on evidence-based practices in policing, and strongly emphasizes positive police-community relationships both as an intrinsic goal and as a strategy for crime reduction. It also seems they’ll also be holding a webinar on body cameras on December 10.

    Yes, body cameras themselves are not going to fix the problem of racialized police violence. Racism’s roots are much deeper in our society and no police policies are going to change that, and police violence is going to continue to be a problem as long as the paramilitarization of the police continues. But we shouldn’t let the fact that these deeper problems persist keep us from pursuing evidence-based solutions that will at least improve the situation, even if not fully solve it.

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