Are Police Body Cameras Enough for Police Accountability?

If the situation in Ferguson has done nothing else, it has highlighted the urgent necessity of holding the police accountable for their actions. It is very possible that Michael Brown tried to reach for a police officer’s gun during the altercation that resulted in his death. It is also possible that it didn’t go down like the police say. If only Ferguson police wore body cameras …

I think it is more likely that a scared police officer started to pull his own gun, was stopped by Brown in that process, discharged his firearm accidentally in the police cruiser, thus scaring Brown away—at which point Brown was an easy target for multiple shots. That account would actually make sense of all the eye witness’s stories.

But we can’t know what happened. You know what would be great? If we had a dashboard cam to clear up that story. Or body cameras on the police officers. But we don’t. According to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, anyway:

Thomas Jackson says his department has 18 patrol cars. This spring, the department purchased two dashboard cameras and two wearable body cameras, but the equipment hasn’t been installed because the department doesn’t have the money to cover that cost, he said.

A dashcam and installation runs about $3,000, he told CNN.

Well isn’t that convenient? Your department can afford military-grade weapons and vehicles. But they can’t afford to install dashcams that have already been purchased? And why in the world does a dashcam and installation cost $3,000? Notice also that he said “dashcam and installation” costs $3,000. They already have the dashcam. So how much does just an installation run? And how much does it cost to “install” body cameras? “It costs a few thousand for me to pin this on my shirt.” Whatever.

The problem with all of this is accountability. It’s not enough that the police have cameras they don’t install, or install cameras but won’t release the footage. What’s important is that their actually be accountability.

Which means that someone other than the police department itself should be responsible for keeping the department above board. That should be obvious enough, but it is rarely implemented practically.

Just listen to this Michael Bell’s story. His son was shot (in error) by overzealous police officers, and within days the department responsible for the killing had already ruled it a justified shooting. He doesn’t think that should be their prerogative. Duh.

That’s why cameras are not enough. If the police department gets to choose who wears a camera when and how the footage is made public, cameras do nothing for us.

How about this—all police officers on duty must wear active body cameras at all times. They don’t have to cost $3,000. (Oh yeah, this is the government… of course they do.) Feeds from those cameras are automatically uploaded to a state archive which cannot be accessed by local police departments without a court order, and those feeds are freely accessible to the pertinent legal representatives of anyone who is featured in a feed.

Perhaps there are other means to hold police accountable. Let me know about them in the comments.