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A New Eyewitness

Tech & Innovation | March 28, 2016

“I was yelling at him to stop and get on the ground…he didn’t. I fired multiple shots. After I fired the multiple shots I paused for a second, yelled at him to get on the ground again, he was still in the same state. Still charging, hands still in his waistband, hadn’t slowed down.” This is Officer Darren Wilson’s account of the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed Black man. Yet this is not the only version. “He was kinda hunched forward like he was in, with his hands up, like he was in a give up, you know ‘I’m givin’ up’ stage,” said one witness at the scene of Brown’s actions. Another stated that Brown “started charging toward the police officer…I’m seeing him coming at an aggressive speed and just in charge mode towards the police officer.” Amongst all these various stories, it’s hard to discern to the truth of the events. The only thing that remains clear is that Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, 2014 and that he is not alone in a pattern of police brutality against Black bodies. Officer Wilson was not presented with any charges due to insufficient evidence that his life had not been in danger during the incident. The case left some Americans wondering if there was any way this result might have been different and if there was a better way to monitor the activities of America’s police forces.

Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, a nationwide push for body-mounted cameras is currently underway. Many advocates believe that body cameras would allow for increased accountability in instances of racial profiling and unnecessary force amongst police officers. The call for cameras has even reached close to the Tufts community, as Boston Police Commissioner William Evans announced in September 2015 that a body camera pilot program is to be implemented on his police force within the next few months. Yet even with technology as seemingly straightforward as video cameras, there are potential issues regarding their implementation and efficacy that could serve to dampen their overall impact on racial profiling and police brutality in America.

The theory of body camera implementation seems simple—if the activities of policemen are recorded, officers would be less likely to engage in unnecessary force, and would more often be held accountable for any questionable actions while on duty. A camera would remove the human failures of memory or deception, potentially making a murky case crystal-clear. “Having increased accountability is something that people have been calling for, and having documentary evidence is a really easy solution not only to hold police accountable… but also for the public at large,” said Jill Weinberg, a sociology professor coming to Tufts this Fall who specializes in criminology. The camera would act as a preventative force against racial profiling and aggressive actions taken against minority groups by police; if the camera is always turned on, officers may be more likely to stop and think about what they are doing, and how those actions might be perceived.

Initial tests of this technology have yielded positive results across the US. A University of Southern Florida report noted that over the course of a year, the number of use-of-force incidents dropped 53 percent among the 46 officers of the Orlando Police Department instructed to wear body cameras while on the job. The study also found a 65 percent decrease in civilian complaints against these officers during this period. A similar study in Rialto, California reported nearly identical results. President Obama has supported this movement, announcing in 2015 that the Justice Department will provide $20 million to police departments to purchase body cameras.

Yet questions about both the ethicality and efficacy of body cameras remain unanswered. One of the main limitations of body cameras lies in determining when exactly the film should be rolling. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report on the issue listed a number of ethical problems that could arise from body cameras that are constantly recording: “The thing that is going to be more problematic [about body cameras] is the privacy issues,” said Professor Weinberg. For example, should an officer continue filming an interaction with a victim of sexual assault, or a witness who may be in danger of retaliation from a violent gang? These cases are often sensitive, and victims may feel uncomfortable reporting to police if they are nervous about being filmed, or feel unsure about who has access to the footage.

Other critics feel that constant recording by officers who patrol densely populated areas, such as New York City, would serve to increase government surveillance of its citizens to a dangerous degree. “If you were a bystander and you were watching [something] unfold,” said Professor Weinberg, “to what extent do we owe that person anonymity if those images come out in public and are used in court?” The ACLU report also notes that requiring officers to be constantly recording could create a “stressful and oppressive” workplace, and might cause footage to be misused by police supervisors to constantly search for minor infractions by their officers.

Evidence that body cameras could reduce racial profiling is also inconclusive. A CBS poll taken following the death of Michael Brown found that while around 80 percent of White Americans feel safe around police, 43 percent of Black citizens stated that the police make them feel nervous and uncomfortable. The Washington Post reported that in 2015, 986 people were shot and killed by police officers, and Black Americans made up 40 percent of those shot while unarmed. These statistics apply on a more local level as well. Between 2007 and 2010 the ACLU of Massachusetts reported that 63.3 percent of those subjected to a stop-and-frisk in Boston were Black. Professor Weinberg sees these issues of racial profiling as a product of inherent racial biases and a lack of representation of people of color within precincts. “When you are someone who is not a member of the community, you are racially different, and you are coming into a beat where everybody does not look like you,” said Weinberg, “you are necessarily predisposed to thinking there is a threat.”

In light of these injustices, some say that body cameras have become a troubling quick fix solution for a systemic issue. Ian Hunter, President of Tufts Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, stated that although he thinks body-cameras could have the potential to help reduce these crimes, “relations will remain strained between police and citizens… especially as long as they disproportionately focus their enforcement of drug laws in poor communities of color.”

Even in many instances where unnecessary force used against a civilian has been recorded, police officers often face no consequences. The entirety of Eric Garner’s death, in which Garner, a Black man, is seen being placed in a chokehold by a White officer for illegally selling cigarettes, has been watched by thousands on YouTube. His desperate pleas for help, “I can’t breathe,” have become part of the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet even after watching the footage, the jury decided not to indict the officer responsible for Garner’s death. Seeing, then, doesn’t always equate to believing.

A solution to unnecessary force and racial profiling by police may instead be increased casual interaction between officers and their beat. Professor Weinberg suggests that more communities try to engage police officers in social events, which would allow them to remove themselves from constantly being seen as a force of authority, and allow them to become better acquainted with the beat they are responsible for. Another potential solution might lay in legislative reform. In April of 2015 there was a push to pass the the End Racial Profiling Act through Congress. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stated that the act “comprehensively addresses the insidious practice of biased treatment by law enforcement because of who you are, or who you are perceived to be,” and would call for data collection and reforms to be made within law enforcement in order to reduce instances of racial profiling.

Yet even these reforms might have only a marginal impact, if implemented at all. The End of Racial Profiling Act has been stalled in Congress since May of 2015, and similar bills have been introduced and tabled in 2013, 2011, and 2004. Many precincts are refraining from implementing body cameras due to the expense of hiring a third-party to review the collected footage.

“You could try to do retraining… but it’s hard,” said Professor Weinberg. “If we already have these implicit biases, we are basically having to retrain our brains to think differently… When you are doing what you feel is a split-second decision, I still think that these more cognitive hardwired predispositions will always govern.”