John Minchillo / AP

Cop cameras offer transparency, not justice

America’s broken policing system needs to be replaced, not have its batteries changed

December 4, 2014 12:15PM ET

When a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to charge officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, Brown’s family responded with an earnest plea to equip police with body-mounted cameras. It mirrored the argument advanced by politicians and pundits in the preceding months: If cops had recording systems, we would able to determine the truth behind tragic deaths such as Brown’s or perhaps even prevent them.

On Monday, President Barack Obama jumped on the bandwagon, announcing $75 million in federal funding for 50,000 police body cameras. The move was a savvy response to massive nationwide protests condemning the grand jury in Ferguson and a terrifying pattern of police officers killing innocent African-Americans with impunity. But Obama’s announcement rang hollow on Wednesday, when a different grand jury failed to indict the New York Police Department officer who choked to death Eric Garner, an asthmatic black man from Staten Island — even though the entire incident was caught on video.

Front pages of New York’s Post and Daily News on the death of Eric Garner.
© Richard Levine / Alamy

Unlike with Brown, we can see and hear Garner’s final moments. The footage shows Garner, unarmed, pleading with police to leave him alone, then repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe,” as Officer Daniel Pantaleo crushes his neck in a chokehold, a maneuver explicitly forbidden by the NYPD. Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, had been harassed constantly by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Pantaleo, meanwhile, has been the target of multiple civil rights lawsuits, including a $30,000 settlement stemming from his alleged illegal stop and strip-search of two middle-aged black men in public. And yet, farcically, the only person involved with the Garner incident facing charges is Ramsey Orta, the man who recorded Pantaleo choking Garner. Orta was subsequently threatened by police officers and indicted on unrelated weapon-possession charges. He claims that the charges were fabricated by police in retaliation for the video.

Garner’s case demonstrates a chilling disconnect between transparency and police accountability. After all, if video evidence of a man being choked to death in broad daylight is not sufficient to indict a police officer, what difference would 50,000 cop cameras possibly make?

The limits of surveillance

In the past year alone, we’ve seen multiple other instances of police impunity in the face of video evidence.

In September a grand jury decided not to indict the officers who killed John Crawford III, a black man who was shopping at a Walmart outside Dayton, Ohio. In surveillance video, we see Crawford casually holding a toy air rifle taken from the store’s shelves while wandering the aisles and talking on his phone. Minutes later, police arrive and shoot him dead on sight. In Sarasota Springs, Utah, 22-year-old anime fan Darrien Hunt was gunned down while in costume, holding a prop samurai sword. Surveillance footage from multiple buildings shows Hunt walking casually with the fake sword, then suddenly running away from police just before two officers open fire, shooting him six times in the back. A grand jury decided not to indict those cops either.

No matter how damning the images cop body cameras record, they’re useless against the story of an officer in a system that treats police as infallible.

And last month Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, was shot and killed by police while playing in a park with a toy gun. Even though a 911 caller said the gun was “probably fake,” video footage shows officers pulling their vehicle directly in front of Rice as he stands idly in a gazebo and shooting him immediately. Rice died the next day. The officer who shot him, Tim Loehmann, was judged unfit for duty two years earlier during a stint at a police department in Independence, Ohio. And yet, as in the other cases, police continue to argue the use of force was necessary and appropriate.

These cases embody perhaps the most terrifying power of the American police state: the ability of police departments to authoritatively define the narrative for an officer’s use of force, even when that narrative is clearly contradicted by video evidence.

As I’ve written before, the on-body cop recording systems Obama is pushing create much-needed transparency. But the effectiveness of that transparency hinges entirely on its being free from police influence and manipulation. Moreover, cop cameras create “official” versions of events, owned and controlled by the police. No matter how damning the images they contain, they’re useless against the story of an officer in a system that treats police as infallible.

A more radical solution

That’s not to say recorded evidence is completely useless. Insofar as people act differently when they’re being recorded, the value of police cameras may ultimately lie not in their use as evidence but their ability to deter cops from engaging in bad behavior. Also, video evidence galvanizes protest by giving the public something around which to rally. The stark contrast between the evidence and the official police narrative serves as proof that the system isn’t working.

But if Obama truly wanted to reform policing, he would start by correcting the legal standards that make it virtually impossible to prosecute a police officer. That means raising the burden of proof under which an officer may claim immunity. (As it stands, an incredibly broad “reasonable belief” that the use of force was necessary is sufficient.) Even then, police are trained in a toxic, militarized culture that teaches them to see threats everywhere and react with violence on a hair trigger. The solution requires a total recasting of the role law enforcement plays — from violent provocateurs in tanks to peaceful masters of de-escalation.

Garner’s case serves as a direct rebuttal to the notion that more surveillance leads to better outcomes for victims of police violence. In truth, no amount of transparency can deliver justice in a system when there’s no justice to be had. Police violence is a systemic problem that requires radical and comprehensive solutions. America’s broken policing system needs to be replaced, not have its batteries changed.

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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