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Body Cameras did not prevent Patrick Lyoya from being killed and Body Camera Training legislation will not keep any of us safe

April 29, 2022

Yesterday, Michigan Rep. Brenda L. Lawrence introduced legislation called the Officers Accountability Training and Honesty (OATH) Act of 2022.

Some may remember Representative Lawrence from the funeral of Patrick Lyoya, which she attended and spoke at. For me, her presence was performative, since she never mentions that Patrick was shot by a cop, that Patrick was shot in the back of the head, plus she never used the word police or the GRPD in her nearly 3 minutes of commentary.

The legislation put forth by Rep. Lawrence states:

In this Act, the term ‘‘body-worn camera continuous training program’’ means a training program carried out by a law enforcement agency, on an ongoing basis, that includes a supervisor conducting a review of a law enforcement officer’s body-worn camera footage with that law enforcement officer, in order to improve policing, including community relations with law enforcement.

Like so many so called police reforms, this bill would give cops more money to conduct their own body camera training program for the supposed purpose of improving policing and relations with the public.

Does anyone else feel like this is just a disgusting way to continue to fund police departments, with the hope that people will somehow think that body cameras will make us safer? Body cameras are a relatively new technology that was the result of numerous Black people being murdered by cops, specifically after Michael Brown was murdered by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The result of this quick fix was the Obama Administration’s decision to provide $23 Million for Police Departments across the US in 2015. Once again, police reforms mean more money for cops.

However, in our haste to embrace body cameras we failed to ask the most important question……will they keep us safe? In a 2021 article written by the ACLU, there is no conclusive evidence that body cameras will indeed reduced police use of force against civilians. The ACLU article did say:

Body cameras and the footage collected by them pose immense privacy risks to individuals and communities, especially because there is often no transparency or accountability around how the data collected are used, maintained, or shared with third parties, including companies and other law and immigration enforcement agencies.

A more abolitionist analysis is needed on body cameras and the institution of policing. An excellent piece written in 2017 for Crimethinc, entitled, Cameras Everywhere, Safety Nowhere: Why Police Body Cameras Won’t Make Us Safer, is worth citing here at length.

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. 

While the prevalence of videos documenting murders by police has certainly risen with the popularity of video-equipped cellphones, we have yet to see a rise in “accountability.” More cops aren’t being charged with murder, more cops aren’t being convicted of murder, and numbers of murders by police aren’t going down. Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was documented by a bystander, but this video didn’t save Garner’s life or lead to any accountability for Pantaleo (though he was later docked two vacation days for an illegal stop-and-frisk that occurred two years before he killed Garner). 

Those who advocate for police body cameras want to believe in accountability through official channels, and hope that visibility will protect us from the very real threat the increasingly militarized police present. Sadly, these tools haven’t worked, and are contributing to more broad forms of surveillance that affect all of us. We don’t need more thorough information about what the police are doing. We need to stop them from doing what they do. We’re not looking for transparency, or accountability. We’re looking for a world without police. We want to go beyond the demands for accountability, to build a world that not only doesn’t need police but is inhospitable to those who would police us.

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