Amidst the public discourse about the deaths of black men in violent encounters with the police, President Obama has called for funding to expand the use of body-worn video cameras to record police-public interactions. The political appeal of this initiative is easy to see: it is quick, seemingly simple to implement, and broadly understood. Given the complexity of accountability concerns, however, I am unconvinced this approach addresses the issue, and I have greater concerns that the attention to video distracts from more effective reforms.
The logic behind body-worn video is straightforward. The working environment of law enforcement officers inhibits supervision and oversight. Because officers work alone and interact with the public with few witnesses present, the police are afforded a great deal of decision-making authority in practice. Supervisors and others involved in oversight become aware of potential misconduct primarily through complaints, when serious injuries occur, or when witnesses provide information. Cameras seek to overcome such “informational disadvantages” by providing seemingly clear evidence about the events that transpired in any interaction with the public. Proponents further argue that the mere knowledge of being recorded will prevent misconduct. Indeed, some evaluation research and case studies?have found that video can be a beneficial tool in addressing accountability concerns and providing information about difficult crimes to prosecute (e.g., domestic violence). Given these potential benefits, the expansion should not be dismissed out of hand, but rather should be part of a broader set of evidence-based reforms.
The policing field has a history of adopting new technologies—with both intended benefits and unintended costs—to solve long-existing and institutionalized challenges. Patrol cars improved efficient responses to emergency calls-for-service, but facilitated greater distance between the police and the community. Emergency 911 call systems further improved rapid response to any particular incident, but their use impedes police organizations from adopting promising problem-solving approaches that view individual incidents as symptoms of underlying problems. Contemporary use of so-called big data analytical techniques (i.e., “predictive policing,” using computer models to predict lawbreaking) shows promise in reducing crime, but it has helped move the field away from the kinds of community-based strategies that produce positive crime control and build trust between the community and the police.? Viewing body cameras as a technology-based solution to accountability problems within this context suggests that we may be falling into the same trap.
Questions remain about the efficacy of cameras as a preventive accountability mechanism. While the lack of evidence might leave ambiguous the legality of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, it is clear that the interaction went badly from the outset due to substandard police tactics. Calling out from a passing police vehicle to two young men, then reversing towards them rapidly and putting the vehicle in a position of close proximity to Brown and his friend are detrimental to the quality of the interaction and to keeping all involved safe. Officers who conduct interactions in such risky ways on a regular basis are only gambling with the probability that any given situation will escalate to something that is out of their control. The resulting force—justified or not—often is unintended, and most officers likely do not calculate odds of repercussions as dynamic encounters unfold. Body cameras might help resolve legal questions about an encounter after the fact, but they do little to improve the quality of routine interactions, and the policing field understands well the kinds of reforms that can improve interactions and reduce negative consequences.
Training officers in procedural justice practices, de-escalation techniques, and knowledge of unconscious biases, youth development, and mental illness would do a great deal more to prevent abuse of force. Compared to the approach that led to Brown’s death, an officer implementing basic elements from procedural justice training steps out of the vehicle, makes eye contact, speaks respectfully (if not forcefully), and listens from a distance that does not put him or her in danger. An officer able to understand the perspective of young people, particularly young black men, who all too frequently have negative encounters with the police, (or in many other cases, individuals with mental illness) would be in a better position to communicate effectively to resolve the situation. These trainings, which do not rest on the assumption that problematic encounters occur because of bad officers calculating the costs and benefits of repercussion, recognize the complexity of any coercive encounters and the factors that cause abuses and negative outcomes.
Absent good leadership, management, and supervision strategies, the extent to which additional video evidence will lead to better policing is unclear. The Eric Garner case, last July on Staten Island, N.Y., and others that have been recorded demonstrate that holding police accountable to legal standards of misconduct is challenging. Cameras act only as a tool to augment good accountability practices already implemented in agencies about which we would have fewer concerns in the first place. What is needed is external pressure on agencies to adopt effective internal accountability approaches, such as early intervention systems and better selection and development of supervisors. By recognizing that abuse of authority is much more a problem of bad organizations than bad officers, President Obama should push to expand the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s resources to investigate local law enforcement agencies. Federal lawsuits have led to promising organizational change in the departments that have entered into consent decrees or memoranda of understanding and have put pressure on other agencies to adopt the contemporary standards. These investigations are relatively rare, but they are part of a federal policy initiative over which the president and Congress have direct control.
It is unfortunate that the national conversation on police authority has been caught up in the debate about body cameras. If there is any good to come out of the tragic deaths we’ve witnessed, it is that they might lead the public and political leaders to better understand police authority and to push for the implementation of real reforms. There is a reform toolkit available that starts with improving police-community connection, officer aptitude to resolve coercive encounters through justice- and awareness-based practices, and external pressure to bring about organizational change. The toolkit needs to be the central focus of the national conversation on abuse of authority.
Shea Warren Cronin, a Metropolitan College assistant professor of criminal justice, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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