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Summer 2020 was a major reckoning for people all across America as yet another Black man, George Floyd, was murdered in an extra-judicial killing by police officer Derek Chauvin. Tragically, Floyd’s story does not stand alone. 1,021 people were killed by American law enforcement officers in 2020 alone. Less than three months into 2021, 213 people have already unjustly lost their lives at the hands of police.
After the public witnessed footage of George Floyd’s death last May, protests broke out in over 140 cities across the country. Activists called out not just police brutality but also its deeper cause: systemic, anti-Black racism. As America reckoned with the fundamentally racist history of policing, we witnessed calls for substantive legislative and structural changes across the nation.
In the past, protests against police brutality have been driven by calls for better police training, more stringent and better documented use of force policies, and yes, even the required use of body-worn cameras by police officers, like those now to be worn by the 39 sworn officers of PSafe, in compliance with new N.J. state law.
Body-worn cameras first became a hot-button issue following the 2014 murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown. The release of a damning Department of Justice report revealed that the Ferguson Police Department was both financially extorting and brutalizing its low-income residents of color at disproportionate rates. At the same time, legislators stood at the forefront of the public eye as the grand jury chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson — another failure to indict an officer who was directly responsible for the killing of an innocent Black boy.
So what then? If justice can’t be had for Michael Brown or his family, how would we make sure this doesn’t happen again?
The answer legislators and advocates alike gravitated toward then was required use of body-worn cameras.
In theory, body cameras work to increase transparency in police procedure, as well as accountability in cases of police brutality or misconduct. The idea was that body-worn cameras would create an objective record that a judge or jury could return to in instances of misconduct, to compensate for a reliance on eyewitness testimony, which in instances of police killings, is largely unreliable and one-sided. People also believed that officers wearing cameras would be less likely to abuse their power and position if each of their actions was “on the record.” In November of 2014, some of the biggest champions of body camera-centric reforms were Michael Brown’s own family.
Admittedly, at this time, I also believed that body cameras would be the catch-all solution to end police brutality. I was a freshman in high school when Michael Brown was killed, and all of a sudden, my recitation of “liberty and justice for all” each morning felt hollow. I was a kid who had a lot of hope for the world, but in the face of harsh realities of injustice in America, I looked to seasoned activists, like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, for guidance in which reforms to support to prevent future police killings. Body cameras were a logical, bipartisan solution — of course they would yield results. But it was disheartening to read about and watch the continued brutalization of people of color by the police.
When I matriculated to Princeton in 2018, I joined a student group called SPEAR (then Students for Prison Education and Reform). As someone who was considering a career in policy, I was drawn to criminal justice reform in an effort to make a real difference in society with pragmatic policy solutions that would work toward the eventuality of a better, more equitable society. As I spent more time reading and learning about the Prison Industrial Complex, of which the police are a part, I came to realize that surface-level procedural reforms would never allow us as a society to grapple with policing’s fundamental ties to systemic racism. For the first few years of my college experience, only a relatively small group of classmates and faculty seemed to share this perspective.
This past summer, something changed. The window had shifted, and suddenly, community-centered abolitionist organizations like the Black Visions Collective were garnering widespread support, and city council members in Minneapolis were pledging to abolish the city’s police force to reinvest in alternatives to policing. Reformed use of force policies, body camera usage, and improved training regimens were no longer viewed as sufficient to address the role police play within greater systems of race-based oppression in the US. And though some groups did focus on more “reformist reforms” like defining standards for use of force and banning chokeholds, others quickly cropped up to argue that these reforms were not only insufficient, but would negatively impact any momentum built toward much-needed, sweeping structural changes to our country’s carceral apparatus.
Hope was on the horizon for the “defund the police'' movement, but as time went on, we saw legislators returning to familiar patterns of procedural reform. Suddenly, the Minneapolis City Council members who had pledged to dismantle the city’s police department claimed their support was “symbolic” and scaled back to simply banning chokeholds, creating new de-escalation requirements, changing reporting measures for use of force, and divesting a mere $8 million from the Minneapolis PD’s budget. (Keeping in mind, MPD’s budget the previous year was a whopping $193 million, with divestment reflecting a less than five percent reduction.)
This is also happening on a national scale.
This past month in February 2021, Congress passed the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” which focuses on procedural reforms like banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, requiring training on racial and religious discrimination, and of course, mandating the use of body cameras at the federal level, all while allocating an additional $750 million for police departments to implement these changes. This legislation is a far cry from the calls to “defund the police” that advocates fought for during the latter half of 2020 and continue fighting for today, and it’s just one of the many ways that legislators have missed the mark in responding to the country’s largest-ever civil rights push against racial injustice.
Similarly, the New Jersey state government is now requiring that all law enforcement officers use body-worn cameras in response to emergency calls. As The Daily Princetonian reported earlier this week, this includes 39 sworn officers of Princeton’s own Department of Public Safety. Optimistically, PSafe’s Director of Operations, Kenneth Strother has cited body cameras as a “a tool to provide transparency in our community” in reference to the “horror stories” of policing we see and read about online.
More and more frequently, language about transparency and accountability in policing sounds like mere rhetoric and empty promises. What good is transparency without real change? It’s impossible to read about these reforms without being transported back to 2014, to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder. Even amid all the vitriol of conservative, pro-police backlash, advocates knew this was a serious problem, and body cameras became the sensible, innovative, and easy-to-implement solution.
Transparency of this nature operates much like procedural justice does in focusing on reforms that contribute to people feeling like the justice system is fair and dignifies them, regardless whether the outcome is actually fair. Likewise, body cameras create the appearance of “transparency” to restore trust in policing while not actually using them to create systems of accountability for instances of police misconduct. Most body-worn camera footage is never seen by the public because police precincts do not store them for long periods of time, and the vast majority of videos are never viewed by anyone outside the precinct.
If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that we cannot trust police to hold each other accountable.
The footage of George Floyd’s death that sparked protests across the nation — the footage that outraged the public into action last summer — was not captured by a body-worn camera, but by a civilian. It was civilians, not body cameras, who demanded accountability and justice when police tried to convince us there was none to be had. And it is civilians, not body cameras, who will continue to demand more from our political institutions in order to dismantle structures of white supremacy and systemic oppression.
Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, writes, “The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.”
If policing is the problem, then our solution cannot exist within and validate the very same institutions designed to perpetuate systemic race-based discrimination and violence.
Body cameras were certainly not the solution, and that’s evidenced by the thousands more police killings and continued calls to end police brutality in the U.S. What we need to do now is imagine alternatives to policing and criminal surveillance in our society and our community, to actually address harm productively and empathetically, not spend tens of thousands of dollars on shiny new equipment that has proven to be ineffective in holding police accountable when it counts.
Gina Feliz is a junior concentrator in the School of Public and International Affairs and the current co-president of Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.