Police Forces Keep Saying Body Cameras Are the Answer. Experts Say Otherwise

As calls to 'defund the police' get louder, police and governments are suddenly very open to body cameras. Critics say they won't address anti-Black racism and are a distraction.
June 11, 2020, 1:32pm
A Vancouver police officer with a body cam
A Vancouver police officer with a body cam. File photo by the Canadian Press
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Justin Trudeau touted the virtues of police body cameras, saying they are something that Canada “need(s) to move forward with,” while the RCMP has promised to outfit some officers with them. Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante says she wants them “as fast as we can,” while outgoing Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says they are “critical.”

Police body-worn cameras are being pushed as an answer to the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States, which sparked mass anti-racism protests across that country, as well as in Canada.

But while some politicians and police departments are pushing for the use of body cams to ensure more accountability and reduce the use of force, there is little evidence to show that the technology will have a positive effect on policing.

“I don't understand what seeing more of us die is going to do if the police have already shown us that they are unwilling to change their practices,” said Sandy Hudson, a community organizer who co-founded Black Lives Matter Toronto, during a debate on CTV this week.

“I don't want to see more of us dying. I want the police to stop killing us.”

Community advocates, rights groups, lawyers, and other experts also question whether body cams are the right thing to focus on, when anti-Black racism and other systemic issues that lie at the heart of police violence go unaddressed.

“I haven’t seen any proof elsewhere of how having body (cameras) has contributed to diminish incidents of police violence or police brutality,” said Marlihan Lopez, coordinator at Concordia University’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute and one of the organizers of a recent anti-Black-racism demonstration in Montreal.

“They’re going to be in the hands of officers, so personally I don’t see how this could be a strategy or an option to combat police violence.”

In 2016, a University of Cambridge survey of about 2,000 police officers in the U.S. and U.K. found that complaints against police dropped dramatically when cameras were used. Researchers attributed that decrease to “the ‘digital witness’ of the camera” improving the behaviour of both police and citizens.

But a more recent study of the effects of body cams on more than 2,200 police officers in Washington, D.C., found that “cameras did not meaningfully affect police behaviour on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force.”

Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in the US capital, said the procedures around body cams are critical, from when officers need to turn the cameras on, to how regularly the footage is reviewed and whether police are held accountable after those reviews.

Lawrence said people in the U.S. have come to expect police to wear body cams—and not using them can lead communities to question whether police are trying to hide what is really going on.

“It’s not a panacea for fixing police-community relations, not at all,” he said. “I would say that the benefit of body-worn cameras is that it can hold officers accountable.”

But capturing police killings on film does not guarantee accountability.

The killing of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old Black man whom police held in a chokehold on a New York City sidewalk in 2014, was filmed “and the officer wasn’t even indicted, let alone convicted,” said Joshua Sealy-Harrington, a lawyer at Power Law, a Canadian law firm.

“So there’s understandable apprehension by movements who have engaged with questions like body cameras and police defunding for a long time, to say that this is a small band-aid solution, and one that’s not going to get us there.”

Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, also pointed to the fact that the Minneapolis police officer who kept a knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, killing him, knew he was being filmed.

“And he didn’t change his behaviour, nonetheless. So, it’s like okay, do cameras make a difference?” Henderson said.

He said that “the greatest deterrent for police misconduct and the best use of the body cameras is when it’s coupled with an eradication of qualified immunity,” which shields government officials from personal liability for actions taken on the job as long as they do not violate a “clearly established” constitutional right.

Henderson said that if body cameras are already deployed—as they are in police departments across the US—the focus should be on how the cameras can help ensure more police transparency and accountability.

Henderson pointed to better hiring practices, training, and a general cultural shift around the role of police, as well as more funding for communities in general, as other needed measures to improving police accountability.

Still, there are concerns that body cams will lead to more police surveillance of vulnerable communities, said Toronto-based lawyer Caryma Sa’d, and questions persist about whether their price tag is worth it.

Montreal police estimated last year that it would cost $17.4 million to equip 3,000 frontline officers with body cameras over a nearly five-year period, and an additional $24 million per year (about 4 percent of the Montreal force’s total 2018 budget) to maintain the program.

“The amount of money it will take to effectively run that program means that we are going to have to increase police budgets, put more resources at the hands of an institution that is failing so many citizens, and just trust that the end result will be worth it,” Sa’d told VICE.

Sealy-Harrington added that beyond doubts about their effectiveness, police use of body cameras gets to the heart of questions about how communities want policing to function, and if they want police, in their current form, at all.

“Rolling out body cameras is a vision of repairing police as they currently exist,” he said. Worse, actually, “the rolling out of body cameras could expand the police state,” he said.

Over the past weeks, calls for cities to defund their police departments—and put the money towards social programs and support for Black and other communities of colour that have been harmed by over-policing—have grown in Canada and the U.S.

Defunding police “isn’t really about fixing the police, it’s a matter of how we imagine our society,” said Sealy-Harrington, adding that pumping millions of dollars into body cameras is the opposite of defunding.

Follow Jillian Kestler D'Amours on Twitter.