In the heat of any tense moment, it’s easy to mistake details. Either your perspective is limited, your memory is foggy, or you’re embarrassed or afraid of the truth when recalling it to others. In a fight between siblings or friends, such inconsistencies are usually merely inconvenient. But when it comes to an encounter between police officers and the citizens they’re charged to protect, a clear recounting of what happened often changes the course of lives. To combat the uncertainty that can arise in a “he said/she said” back and forth, police precincts across the country have been increasingly turning to technology to impartially record exchanges. The use of body cams is sometimes controversial, but recent officer-involved incidents prove how vital they can be in delivering justice – or exonerating.
History of Body Cam Technology
The use of body cameras in police encounters first occurred in 2005 in the United Kingdom. Departments in Devon and Cornwall are credited as the first to implement the technology in their forces. By 2006, the UK was scaling the technology nation-wide, specifically because of its efficiency in the use of domestic violence cases where victims were hesitant to press charges or provide details, but the information gathered on scene with the cameras was often sufficient for a conviction.
By 2012, the technology had crossed the pond to the United States and was implemented in Rialto, Mesa, and Phoenix. Rialto almost immediately reported an 88% decrease in complaints against police officers.
The success spurred precincts across the country to consider adopting the technology, often referred to as BWV (Body Worn Video). However, the cost of updating officers to the technology was often prohibitive, so then-President Barack Obama approved a reimbursement program, allowing interested forces to arm their officers with BWV. By 2013, a third of US police forces were using BWV.
According to the National Institute of Justice, “… The ability of law enforcement to fight crime effectively continues to depend on the public’s perception of the legitimacy of the actions of officers. A number of recent civil disturbances across the United States subsequent to instances of lethal use of force by officers highlight the ongoing challenges in maintaining the public’s perceptions of law enforcement legitimacy, particularly as it concerns the use of force.
Body-worn cameras have been viewed as one way to address these challenges and improve law enforcement practice more generally. The technology, which can be mounted on an officer’s eyeglasses or chest area, offers real-time information when used by officers on patrol or other assignments that bring them into contact with members of the community. Another benefit of body-worn cameras is their ability to provide law enforcement with a surveillance tool to promote officer safety and efficiency and prevent crime.”
Recent Cases Where Body Cams Have Been Instrumental
Ever since the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and others by officers violating procedure, outcry has risen demanding that all officers across the country use body cams. In each of those cases, body cams either were or would have been elucidating. Black people across the country fear interacting with the police, but even more so when there’s no one watching.
In the case of Breonna Taylor, no cams were used; everything said about her shooting was reliant upon testimony from involved officers, and Taylor’s injured boyfriend. SWAT who arrived after Taylor’s death did have body cams on, but it highlights how the proof arrived too late to be of any use in securing justice for the Taylor family.
By contrast, in the case of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, initially the evidence shown to the public was cell phone footage. Damning in and of itself, the cell phone showed officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he died, in direct violation of department policy on safe restraint. Body cam footage for one of the officers on the scene – Peter Chang – showed that the scene was not as tense as Chauvin described; Floyd was peacefully restrained when he was killed, and onlookers were not agitating violently as was initially reported. That footage may be instrumental in proving that Chauvin did not feel under threat and therefore had no defense for his actions.
Elijah McClain, a likely autistic 23-year-old in Aurora, CO, was shot after officers claim he reached for one of their weapons. However, body cam footage disputes that claim, and there is no clear evidence that McClain reached for the weapon, but the incident was immediately escalated by officers which led to his death.
This Week, More Evidence in Favor of Body Cams
Two officers are out of a job in separate cases this week after body cam evidence showed the proof of their actions.
One case – which luckily did not turn fatal – involved Caron Nazario and ofc Joe Gutierrez in an encounter in Virginia. Nazario is a Lieutenant in the US army, and called Eric Garner “uncle”. Garner was killed in police custody 6 years ago after officers applied an illegal and dangerous restraint hold on him. Family members of Nazario said they were horrified to watch what they thought was a repeat of their tragic loss play out when Nazario encountered Gutierrez. Body cam footage shows Nazario attempting to comply with conflicting officer requests, and Gutierrez says, “you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son.” This quote is apparently a reference to the movie The Green Mile wherein an innocent Black inmate is executed by electric chair for a crime he did not commit. Gutierrez deployed pepper spray on the terrified young soldier. This one incident did not end in death, however – but the effects still haunt Nazario. Gutierrez claims he pulled Nazario over for failing to display tags on his car, but body cam footage clearly shows dealer tags.
And in the case of Daunte Wright, an officer shot and killed him over the weekend. Wright’s encounter occurred in Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon in a traffic stop. Although the stop was for expired registration, ofc Potter discovered that he had a warrant and attempted to take him into custody. Frightened, Wright tried to get back in his vehicle and flee, but made no violent moves towards Potter. Potter claims at this point that she tried to use a taser, but accidentally discharged a firearm instead, striking and killing Wright. Body cam footage does corroborate that Wright tried to flee, but may be more damning than helpful for Potter as it doesn’t show any violent intent on his part, but understandable fear. Just this afternoon, Potter was arrested and charged with 2nd degree manslaughter.
Body Cams are Necessary for Reform
Prior to the advent of body cam technology, video evidence was reliant upon the surveillance footage of nearby buildings, or grainy dash cams. While such evidence has, over the years, provided proof both in favor and against police conduct, it’s become increasingly obvious that it’s necessary to have camera footage directly attached to officers.
When a community has no faith in the actions of its officers because they have no accountability, every interaction is at risk of being fraught with tension. Police precincts across the country have a serious and deserved bad image to work on, and accountability to the public is only part of the path forward.