A few days ago, the Obama administration announced $263 million to go towards purchasing 50,000 body cameras for police officers across the country, as well as training in the responsible use of military-grade weaponry. This, coupled with the burgeoning trend of police departments across the nation to begin using body cameras, seemed to be one positive beacon of hope to arise from the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri.
In theory, body-cameras would be a good thing, and possibly prevent the kind of doubt and confusion that leads to cases like the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, in which different narratives are told and there are conflicting eyewitness accounts. After all, the camera doesn’t lie. A video eyewitness would serve to protect not only citizens from excessive uses of force, but also officers from possible false accusations of such behavior. If there had been video footage of Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown, perhaps a great deal of the confusion and anger that sprung forth from that incident would have been quelled.
Flash forward to a couple days ago, and a New York grand jury’s decision to not charge officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke hold death of Eric Garner, which was captured on cell phone video by a bystander. Painful to watch, Garner’s last moments alive are captured in full view in the video, including the choke hold (which is against NYPD policy) that lead to his death, and his pleas about not being able to breathe.
Yet, inexplicably, no charges are being filed against Pantaleo. It’s like the Rodney King case verdicts all over again, in which there was extensive video footage of the incident in question, except that this time, there will not even be a trial, which is perhaps more of a slap in the face. But it brings to mind not just the Rodney King video, but also lesser-known (but just as disturbing) recordings such as the surveillance video and audio that was captured while homeless schizophrenic Kelly Thomas was being murdered by two former Fullerton police officers in Southern California. In that case, while there was a trial, again inexplicably there were no convictions, on any of the possible charges.
So, it’s hard not to think, what good do cameras do, when despite their recording of an entire event, the evidence they bring forth still does not matter? What does it take for a cop to be charged with a crime, and going further, convicted? What more does a grand jury or a trial jury have to see that will convince them a crime (even one lesser than murder) has taken place?
Unfortunately, while new body cameras will surely bring about some good reality television highlight reels, they don’t seem to have the potential to matter in terms of helping America’s justice system work fairly when it comes to indicting and convicting police officers. Sadly, we can expect many more deaths at the hands of overzealous officers that are not called to answer for their actions. How many of these deaths need to occur before change happens remains to be known. And what will bring about that change remains to be seen.