Body cameras for cops are a no brainer after Ferguson

By Johnny McCabe

 (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
(Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

The lethal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, at the end of the summer has taken the nation by storm, foregrounding controversial issues about race and police brutality, as well as the arguable failure of the United States legal system to address these systematic problems.

Protesters of all races have condemned the lack of accountability they perceive in cases of excessive police violence, especially against black youths and other minorities, while many police officers across the country claim that the actions of a few, as well as a sensationalist news media, have defamed the losses and sacrifices of the unsung and unknown heroes of law enforcement. Whatever the individual’s stance on the issue, the shooting, media frenzy and subsequent grand jury investigation were all made possible by a simple common factor: a lack of undeniable, objective evidence.

Some might maintain that the mere fact that the shooting occurred is evidence enough, while others might argue that the evidence presented to the grand jury is sufficient to exonerate former Wilson. In either case, there is one option that quite obviously presents a net positive outcome for anyone involved: the use of on-body cameras by law enforcement officials.

The idea of using video recording devices to capture objective evidence of crime is not a new one. Ever since we began to feasibly miniaturize commercial camera sensors and data storage in the past couple of years, there has been focus on the potential of such technology in the law enforcement and security fields. Frequently, it seems, such technology is referred to in public and political conversation in the same breath as words like “totalitarian” and “Orwellian,” calling to mind the all too fresh memories extensive government surveillance that has come to light following 9/11.

However, in a justice system that relies on tenuous witness testimony and conflicting narratives between the victim and the perpetrator, the events in Ferguson show that there is clearly room for greater accountability and self-awareness on the part of law enforcement.

One of the key factors in perpetuating the protests and civil unrest that followed Brown’s death was the controversial, unconventional and downright bizarre grand jury investigation regarding Wilson’s indictment, in which county prosecutor Robert McCulloch inundated the jury with a massive amount of confusing, circumstantial and contradictory evidence, including eyewitness testimony from over 60 witnesses.

The jury proceedings, as well as their eventual decision not to indict Wilson, have drawn scathing criticism from all across the country, with many viewing the entire affair as a subversion of the American justice system. The decision arguably fueled further public outrage, renewing protests throughout the nation. None of that would have happened if Wilson had been wearing a camera during his altercation with Brown.

If he had, there would have been no reason to wrangle with the troublesome ambiguity of eyewitness testimony, which has largely come to be viewed by the scientific community as completely worthless. There would be no doubt as to whether or not Brown had his hands up as Wilson was shooting him, or if his alleged approach of the officer was motivated by aggression or submission. There would be no need for a grand jury proceeding, no opportunity for racism or discrimination to enter the mix as narratives collide and witnesses clash with officials, especially with objectivity in doubt. There would only be evidence.

Evidence could have saved Wilson’s career. Studies have shown that police who wear on-body recording devices are far less likely to engage in acts of force, and are much more likely to attempt to de-escalate tense situations without resorting to violence. Recording devices not only provide unassailable visual evidence of crimes – they also, quite demonstrably, encourage law enforcement officers to be on their best behavior, for fear of disciplinary action.

Accountability, both to the law and to one’s people, serves as a robust check on the type of power that comes along with a badge and a gun. It neuters the potential both for media influence and system-wide discrimination that so frequently inhibits the due process of justice in cases of violence by the police, especially as they pertain to blacks and other minorities. On-body recording cameras help police officers do their jobs – not just in a good way but in the right way. And in an age of both incredible technological promise and unsettling system-wide discrimination, we need them now more than ever.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]