Police body cameras will not change the culture of racism in America

The issues run deep.
The issues run deep.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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“It’s not the camera; it’s the culture,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said April 11 during his weekly Rainbow PUSH forum aired nationwide from Chicago. Emphasizing this distinction, Jackson uttered the phrase twice when discussing the murder of Walter Scott by North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager.

Politicians and police departments have turned toward the body camera to improve relations between police officers and the communities they serve and to lessen violence perpetrated by—and we hope against—police officers. But it will take more than body cameras, police dashboard cameras, and cameras installed in public places to make people feel safer. Increasing surveillance is not enough.

While police body cameras may be useful in processes of legal arbitration, it is not clear if they will actually prevent violence, and those who have studied the effects of these cameras still call for more research. One study shows that complaints against police and the use of force by police dropped during a nine-month period when officers were wearing body cameras.

Yet Eric Garner’s death in New York City in July 2014—among others—offers one example of an incident in which awareness of being filmed did nothing to stop police from assaulting someone, according to legal theorist Justin Hansford: “The officers who forcibly pushed Garner’s body into the ground knew a witness was recording the incident, and at least one of them spoke to the videographer,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

Hansford astutely notes, “It’s lax laws that prevent us from holding police accountable, not a lack of evidence.” His call for justice is spot on; however, his proposal that we use the law and “financial penalties” to change behavior still places the burden on an individual (police officer) rather than a discriminatory system. The many trenchant and eloquent critiques by scholars and activists about systemic racism and the prison industrial complex, however, indicate that the systems themselves must change.

Increasing the number of cameras recording our actions is a short-sighted move for two reasons. First, it does not change these systems: It does not change the processes for training people to be police officers, the stereotypes that liken black men in hoodies to criminals or the J.D. programs that produce lawyers. Second, cameras reinforce the idea that individuals are the source of violent actions and, therefore, stopping violence requires changing behavior at the scale of the individual.

I’m not arguing to remove the individual from the law or that individuals should not be accountable for their choices. Rather, I want to call our attention to the logic of surveillance that underpins this camera culture. Body cameras could actually divert our attention from thinking more broadly about justice and injustice, and their vantage point—the police officer—privileges the viewpoint of the person who represents the legal system. Examining this surveillance logic means asking on what assumptions President Obama’s decision to allocate $263 million for body cameras is based. What might happen if this money could instead be used to do what Angela Davis urges: address the “socio-historical conditions that have fostered a system that criminalizes communities of color.” What if we spent $263 million empowering communities instead of merely hoping to prevent violence? We could start looking for creative solutions, like using play to build empathy and a sense of community among diverse people.

Ultimately, we must push our thinking beyond the individual. If our goal is justice, then we need to imagine a legal system that encompasses more than individual accountability and individual punishment. Unfortunately, body cameras don’t result from the kind of critical and imaginative thinking we need to challenge racism at a systemic scale.