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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

On police cameras, Ferguson, and justice

Chatter about police wearing cameras while on duty has been picking up over the past year. The recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson has only amplified such calls. Really, as more and more ordinary citizens undertake lifelogging seriously, police wearing cameras will be inevitable. For an example from some recent and near-future fiction, look no further than Halting State, by Charles Stross. But it’s a mistake to think that police wearing cameras is a magic bullet that will prevent further tragedies like Ferguson.

In theory, police cameras are supposed to make officers more accountable. Cameras tantalize us with the promise of a mythical objectivity of evidence untainted by the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. They would dispel any ambiguity over what, precisely, happened when Darren Wilson confronted Michael Brown. At the moment, all we can do is try to piece things together from the autopsy reports. (Hint: Wilson shot Brown, who didn’t have a gun, at least six times. In what crazy universe does that seem justified?) Ah, but if Wilson had been wearing a camera, then the story would be different. Supposedly we would know (and therefore, our fallacious logic follows, understand) what happened between Wilson and Brown. Perhaps the very presence of the camera itself would somehow have prevented the shooting, since Wilson would be aware that his actions would be recorded and scrutinized so closely.

Except this line of reasoning is patently false, because we already know that recording police does not stop them from being cruel or brutal. With the proliferation of decent mobile phone cameras, it’s now possible for citizens to record police. They regularly do, particularly when they see police acting in a heavyhanded or outright inappropriate manner. A quick YouTube search turns up thousands of videos with names like “Police Bully And Intimidate Copwatcher For Video Recording”. (I’m not going to upset myself by searching for videos of actual police brutality, but they are on there as well.)

It should be clear, then, from the reactions of police officers to being recorded by others as well as the apologists offering defences of Wilson’s behaviour in Ferguson that many police officers do not believe they should be held accountable in this way. And from the number of acts of police brutality recorded on video, they obviously don’t care about being caught. Because they know that they won’t get in trouble; their superiors will protect them. The issue of police brutality is systemic and cultural, and police cameras will not make that go away.

By all means, call for police to wear cameras. But let’s not allow such a digression to distract us from the underlying issues here. Police are increasingly being called upon to act as pseudo-military agents without adequate psychological or emotional training to handle such a role. I feel sorry for those officers in Ferguson and elsewhere who have been swept up in something they are not able to control because they were never trained for it. And I feel even more sorry for the citizens of Ferguson for having—somehow—a predominantly white police force that seems to have forgotten that the duty of the police is to protect its citizens, not persecute them. I feel sorry for Americans in general, who appear to be living in an increasingly violent and dangerous society, where the only answer must be guns and more guns, and police routinely use SWAT teams to raid the homes of unthreatening individuals and obtain military-grade hardware from the Pentagon.

But America is still the greatest country on God’s green Earth, right?

At the end of the day, it isn’t about recording the actions of police officers. It’s about the actions that are actually being recorded, and what actions we, as the citizens from whom the police derive their legal mandate, consider acceptable. All the cameras in the world would have done no good for Michael Brown if we citizens refused to act upon their testimony. Every police officer could wear a camera 24/7, and it wouldn’t make a difference if we allowed them to continue to commit acts of brutality with impunity.

We’ve taken the first step; we’re talking about it. We need to do more. We need to protest and lobby and vote and do everything we can to make sure that policy-makers understand we find the increased militarization of police unacceptable and dangerous and in direct opposition to the spirit of public safety that they are supposedly trying to protect. Cameras do not and can never hold someone accountable. Only other people can do that.