The Marshall Project
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting last summer, broad (and rare) consensus emerged in support of a tangible reform to policing practices: advocates, legislators, and even many officers themselves endorsed equipping cops with body cameras. Enthusiasm for the technology, touted as a source of accountability among police and — if necessary — a source of authority about police, reached its peak in December, when the White House announced it would allocate $263 million to buy 50,000 cameras for use nationwide.
Almost instantly, skeptics pounced. NPR assessed the “drawbacks” of body cameras, pointing out that the much-cited research on their effectiveness — a study of California cops that found the use of cameras reduced incidents of excessive force by 50 percent — was hardly definitive. The author of the study admitted that its limited scope meant that the results “could be a fluke.”
That wariness only intensified after a grand jury investigating the choking death of Eric Garner declined to indict the cop responsible, even though jurors had been presented with cell-phone footage of the incident. Video evidence, it seemed, was not as incontrovertible as many had hoped and some had claimed. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) bluntly stated the implications of the verdict: “It brings into question whether body cameras will make any difference.”
And yet with federal funding and public approval secured — an end-of-year poll by the Washington Post found that 86 percent of Americans were in favor of mandatory use of body cameras by police — more and more departments have adopted the technology. It is estimated that one in six police officers now use cameras.
The nature of the debate surrounding them has evolved, too. The urgent question now is not who will use the cameras, but who will be allowed to see the footage.
Picture: Tony Webster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons