In an effort to quell public uproar after the release of a video showing the murder of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an immediate expansion of the city’s body-worn camera program. Emanuel told reporters that the expansion of the program would “help enhance transparency and credibility as well as strengthen the fabric of trust that is vital between police and the community.”
The irony of his suggestion is galling: the video of McDonald’s murder was taken by a similar law enforcement technology, a police dashboard-camera, but held in secret by the department for over a year. Are Chicagoans supposed to trust that footage from newly-purchased body-worn cameras won’t reach a similar fate? The problem is not the technology, but the police culture of impunity.
Body-worn cameras (BWC) are not “cure-alls” for police violence and misconduct. Body-worn cameras alone will not spawn more fair, respectful and constitutional policing. Unless combined with robust systems for supervising, monitoring and disciplining officers, we’ll merely be giving police departments increased powers of surveillance. Equally important is who controls the footage, and what can be done with it.
Here in New York, When a federal judge ordered a BWC pilot program as part of its 2013 remedial decision in our case Floyd v. City of New York, few had heard about the technology. The pilot was not part of the relief we had requested, but rather an additional attempt by Judge Shira Scheindlin to “address the constitutional harms at issue” in the case. In her decision, Judge Scheindlin highlighted the importance of community input into any policing reform, stating that “no amount of legal or policing expertise can replace a community’s understanding of the likely practical consequences of reforms in terms of both liberty and safety.”
I emphasized this very point during testimony before the New York State Assembly earlier this week: For BWCs to be part of the solution to police violence, and not just another evidence collection tool or a perceived mechanism of surveillance, it is imperative that policies and protocols prioritize input from communities bearing the brunt of police abuses. The Department of Justice, the New York Inspector General, and the Police Executive Research Forum have also highlighted the importance of community input.
As our allies from Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) have insisted, the mechanisms for collecting community input must be clearly stated and the resulting policies and protocols “developed and implemented with maximum transparency and accountability to the public.” Some cities, including Madison (WI), Minneapolis, and Toronto, implemented a variety of outreach strategies as they developed and piloted the cameras, including sending over 20,000 surveys to individuals, businesses, and stakeholders. Their examples provide helpful models that could be used as a starting point for New York.
As BWC programs proliferate throughout the country, it is essential that we continue reminding government officials that this technology must be used to increase police accountability, especially to those communities that have been most impacted by police violence and profiling. And the only way to do that is to create ongoing, transparent and explicit mechanisms for public input into the implementation of body-worn camera programs.