Mike Brown's Law is a start, but police body-cams are no panacea for violence
Without changes to police conduct policy, norms and disciplinary actions, mandatory body cameras will never ensure victims get real justice
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on Nov. 27, 2014.
By Alexa Van Brunt
Since a grand jury blamed the non-indictment of the officer who killed their son on a lack of evidence, Michael Brown’s parents have called for a law in his name forcing every police officer in America to wear a body camera. The Mike Brown Law would mean that “we won’t have to play this game of witnesses, mirrors and secret grand jury proceedings” with future cases, the family’s attorney told reporters on Tuesday –“so we won’t have to see this play out over and over again all across this country,” Brown’s father said Wednesday on the Today show.
Evidence suggests that cameras may well reduce some of the egregious police misconduct long in existence but made most visible by Ferguson. But recent events show that body-cams alone are not enough to prevent systematic abuses by officers or to ensure their victims receive justice.
Last month, a video surfaced showing John Steckley, a detainee in a Philadelphia correctional facility, being punched by Correctional Officer Tyrone Glover, though Steckley did not appear to present a physical threat to the guard. Steckley was later criminally charged with assaulting Glover; there is no indication that Glover was disciplined at all.
In September, Jamal Jones, a passenger in a car, was tasered during a routine police stop in Hammond, Indiana, after armed police broke the car window. The entire incident was caught on camera by another passenger. But just this week, the FBI declined to bring charges against the police officers responsible for assaulting the unarmed man; both the Lake County, Indiana Sheriff and the Indiana State Police have declined to investigate the officers’ actions, and both are back on the job.
And 17-year-old Trevon Yates, from East St Louis, Missouri, alleges that in August 2013 he was coerced by St Clair County, Illinois Sheriff’s deputies into confessing to a crime he did not commit. The coercive interrogation – and confession – were videotaped in accordance with law enforcement policy. As a result of his confession, Yates was incarcerated as an adult for over nine months in the St Clair County Jail before the charges against him were finally dropped. The St. Clair County State’s Attorney claims that the charges were dismissed for reasons other than law enforcement misconduct. (I currently represent Yates in a pending civil suit against the deputies.)
Each of these incidents was an undeniable act of misconduct by law enforcement captured on video and, in each case, the officers knew they were being videotaped at the time of the incident. Yet video didn’t deter them, and it didn’t help their victims. Instead, officers in each case thought they could get away with police brutality – and they may have been right.
We each interpret evidence (including evidence recorded on tape) in accordance with our preconceived beliefs, biases and opinions – a phenomenon known as the hostile media effect. Researchers Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, who studied the effect among viewers of a football game, noted that what people observe “is simply is not the same for different people whether the ‘thing’ is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism, or spinach.”
There is no such thing as a police video that people merely observe. For officers – or members of a jury – tasked with reviewing videos from police body cameras, a coercive interrogation could be perceived as an effective, hard-ball interview. A baseless search of someone on parole? An appropriate preventive measure to get criminals off the street.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have already begun spending millions of dollars outfitting their officers with body cameras. Manufacturer VIEVU reported that test units are up 70% since the Ferguson protests, and September was the highest sales month in the company’s history. Taser International reported that sales of one of its camera models have jumped 300% over the last year.
Body-cam pilot programs have sprung up in most major urban areas, including Chicago, New York City, Miami, Washington DC and Pittsburgh – and the few initial reports released on their effectiveness have been largely positive. Take the widely hailed success of the police department in Rialto, California, where incidents of use of force by officers purportedly declined by 60% and citizen complaints by 88% after the imposition of body cameras. Washington DC police chief Cathy L Lanier stated that she expects up to an 80% drop in police complaints after the introduction of the camera in her city. The New York police department was ordered by the courts to initiate its own body cam pilot program to evaluate their effectiveness in curbing the city’s egregiously biased stop-and-frisk policy; though the city is appealing the ruling, it’s proceeding with a pilot program anyway.
But without changes to law enforcement policy, norms and disciplinary actions, cameras alone won’t be enough to end police misconduct.
Police officials – and lawmakers – must make the definition of officer misconduct crystal clear – because not all officers will understand taped events in the same way. We have to draw a hard line about what constitutes police abuse and then discipline those who cross it. This is what attorney general Eric Holder describes as “wholesale change”.
There also has to be internal accountability – already a requirement of effective policing – which is dependent on the creation of truly independent offices of professional standards and internal affairs. These entities must be willing to discipline officers caught committing abuses on tape, as well as those officers who abuse the videotaping process. From the aftermath of the Rodney King beating in 1991 to the present day, officers not infrequently “forget” to turn on their recording equipment. One promising example of real police transparency is the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor, a civilian police oversight agency created to address the severe police abuses in that city following Hurricane Katrina – though that office’s effectiveness has been hampered by underfunding.
Police departments must also implement early intervention systems to identify officers who may be violating even minor departmental policy before more serious issues develop. Distinct from a disciplinary approach, these intervention systems protect both officers and the public by addressing officers’ personal and professional problems before they commit serious misconduct, even if it means pulling an officer off active duty.
Training, like that provided by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and more effective recruitment methods (like that advocated by the IACP/Department of Justice toolkit) are also key. Personnel diversity, community partnerships and agency collaboration can all help in the creation of departments that function with effective oversight and enforce behavioral norms among officers – norms intolerant of misconduct and the pernicious code of silence still present in many departments.
We are willing to invest millions of dollars in cameras to record police misconduct. As a result, juries will have more to rely on than an officer’s word, differing eyewitness accounts and a blurry iPhone video, as they did in the case of Michael Brown. But to truly see systemic change, we need to do more than just enact one law in Brown’s name and in his honor – we need to invest in recruiting, training and supervising the officers behind the camera lens.
- Alexa Van Brunt is a clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University.