We know that police violence is a real problem in the US, and it makes sense that people are strategizing ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from being assaulted or murdered by the police. Many who are concerned about this issue have begun advocating for police to wear video cameras on their uniforms. The idea is that cameras will prevent police violence, or at least hold officers accountable after the fact. Groups like Campaign Zero (a reformist Black Lives Matter offshoot) and the American Civil Liberties Union are advocating this measure, and even police departments themselves, after initial resistance, have signed on. But the idea that more cameras translates to better accountability (however we define this) relies on a faulty premise. Police get away with murder not because we don’t see it, but because they’re part of a larger system that tells them it’s reasonable to kill people. From lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors to juries, citizens, and the media, every level of society uncritically supports and transmits the police point of view. In this atmosphere, police can murder with no fear of repercussions.
Advocates of police-worn body cameras, as well as advocates of bystanders filming the police, constantly claim that cameras act as equalizers between police and people, that they are tools for accountability. But there is very little evidence to support this. Many assume visibility will bring accountability—but what does accountability even look like when it comes to police violence? If charges are all that police reformers would demand, where do they go when those charges end in verdicts of innocence or mistrial, as they almost inevitably do? Do they just go home and revel in the process of the justice system? Or are there other options situated outside official channels? The reality is that we don’t have a visibility problem but a political problem. The only “accountability” we see seems to be in occasional monetary settlements (paid by taxpayers). These settlements don’t hold officers accountable, or prevent future assaults and murders.
Though initially hesitant to adopt body cameras, police departments and officers quickly changed their tune as they realized that cameras benefit them far more than they benefit the general public under surveillance. We now have 4000 police departments in the US that employ body cameras, including the two largest, Chicago PD and NYPD, no strangers to inflicting violence on people and getting away with it. The largest marketer of officer-worn body cams, the leader in a $1 billion per year industry, is Taser Inc. After creating their namesake product, which was used to kill at least 500 people between 2001 and 2012, Taser started adding cameras to their stun guns in 2006, and introduced the body-worn camera in 2008. Since this introduction, their stock value has risen ten times higher. This was in no small part helped by grants from Obama’s Justice Department, which spent $19.3 million to purchase 50,000 body cameras for law enforcement agencies. Taser has since introduced a cloud storage service marketed to police forces (yes, a privately owned evidence storage service), proposed manufacturing drones with stun guns (and of course, cameras) attached to them, and recently bought the company Dextro, which has developed software to identify and index faces and specific objects.