Of all the things President Barack Obama could have proposed in response to the growing rage nationwide at police violence and racism — and impunity for both — he proposed something smart. The plan to spend $75 million to equip 50,000 cops with body cameras amounts to significant recognition that trust in police has been decimated. The cops need watching, and even the president knows it.
It also amounts to the thinnest of silver linings on the black cloud of totalized mass surveillance. Studies on isolated municipal police forces have shown that the introduction of mandatory body cams dramatically reduces instances of use of force. For instance, after three years of cameras being a required part of police uniform in Rialto, California, reported instances of officers using "force" (lethal and non-lethal) dropped 80 percent.
Constant observation, and our awareness of it, produces controlled and docile behavior — a troubling power for a government to have over its civilian population. Certainly, though, trigger-happy police deserve the surveillance treatment. Furthermore, the president is right to privilege the importance of police accountability over other troubling patterns of contemporary policing like increased militarization. Police prove themselves deadly without armored vehicles; in the case of Eric Garner's death on a Staten Island street corner, only a choke hold from an NYPD officer was required.
Bodycams by no means assure an end to police brutality and impunity. There is a link empirically borne out between transparency and accountability, but transparency does not entail accountability. Consider that ample videos — from civilian cell phones to surveillance cameras to police dashcams and bodycams — have presented clear and shocking examples of police brutality without affecting impunity. The video of Oscar Grant's death tells one story — summary execution of an unarmed man by a BART police officer in Oakland. The legal fate of the cop who shot him, however, tells the story of an "involuntary manslaughter."
Consider, too, the surveillance footage made public of police officers shooting dead a 22-year-old black man in an Ohio Walmart who was holding a BB gun sold in that very store. The footage shows the cops shooting John Crawford within seconds of entering the store. And yet no officers involved were indicted. Similarly, in the face of video evidence suggesting that a Cleveland cop immediately shot at 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was also carrying a toy gun, after exiting his cruiser, police continue to defend the use of lethal force against the child.
It is a dangerous and supremely powerful institution that can successfully, in the determinations of our justice system, assert its own truths in contradiction to video evidence.
It is certain that footage of police violence, when made public, has helped stoke this long overdue national upsurge in protests against police brutality. But it is not videos alone that will force an end to impunity — it's the demonstrated public rage on seeing and hearing about these incidents. The furious and righteous protests in Ferguson and other US cities in recent weeks and months is what forced the president to take action, not the fact that police kill young black men at a rate 21 times higher than young white men.
Watching cops through mandatory bodycams or citizen cell phone cameras helps lessen instances of misconduct — but only within a context that considers Darren Wilson's shooting dead of 18-year-old, unarmed Mike Brown to be within the parameter of acceptable police conduct. Wilson, with the force of the justice system behind him, can go on network television and say, with confidence, that he was doing his job correctly when he ended Brown's life. For those who agree with such a framework, Obama's order for bodycams and better training will likely seem sufficient. For those who see a deeper problem of state-sanctioned police violence and racism, the struggle will continue long after the bodycams role out.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard