Student Journalists Debate Police Brutality, Bias & Body Cameras
Amid the riots, die-in protests and investigations nationwide centered on police brutality and racial bias, one option increasingly offered as a potential solution: body cameras.
“When an officer approaches a citizen with no camera, he can be many things: a protector, an inquisitor or a thug,” University of Alabama senior Nathan James writes for The Crimson White student newspaper. “But when an officer knows that both his actions and the citizen’s actions will be subject to review, he becomes something else entirely. He becomes what he was intended to be — an arm of the law.”
Student journalists have engaged in an increasingly spirited debate in recent weeks about the ins-and-outs of police cameras — including privacy questions, related costs, proper implementation and the benefits they may or may not provide.
University of Virginia student Gray Whisnant contends the cameras would benefit law enforcement in their apprehension of suspected criminals.
“If an officer was to interrupt a liquor store robbery, for instance, the chase and arrest of the perpetrators would be archived in real time to get better visuals on the physical makeup, attire, weapons and potential vehicles used in the crime,” Whisnant writes in The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. “While interviewing area residents for information, witnesses would be more comfortable speaking freely knowing that they wouldn’t be misrepresented or coerced in telling their stories. On a more mundane level, people are more likely to be cordial in dealing with police if they know they are being filmed.”
Setting aside issues of coercion and cordiality, how should the filming process work exactly?
University of Maryland senior Emma Atlas proposes a simple method for the cameras’ use — required attire, near-constant recording and immediately-uploaded footage.
“The system as I see it would require police officers to wear the cameras on their chest the entire time they are on duty,” Atlas explains in The Diamondback student newspaper. “At no time would they be allowed to turn it off, except in the bathroom, because lost footage while on patrol would be incredibly implicating. Just before they clock out, the officers would turn in their cameras for processing by an outside regulating agency. Or, with a little innovative push, the system could send footage into the Cloud as it’s recorded, preventing any of it from being lost because of camera damage.”
“Cops recognize that these cameras don’t just protect citizens; they protect the cops themselves. In the event that a person fabricates a report of police brutality, the camera’s footage can be used to exonerate the officer.”
James Madison University senior Kevan Hulligan is pushing for body cameras in part because they offer protection — for the public and the police.
“Cops recognize that these cameras don’t just protect citizens; they protect the cops themselves,” he writes in The Breeze campus newspaper. “In the event that a person fabricates a report of police brutality, the camera’s footage can be used to exonerate the officer.”
For example, could a body camera have been used to more clearly exonerate officer Darren Wilson — or at least helped to clarify the specifics of the Ferguson shooting involving Wilson and Michael Brown?
As UA student James writes in the Crimson White, “A button camera would have protected the reputation of ‘good’ Darren Wilson, allowing him to prove that he was provoked and save his career, or it might have provided evidence against ‘bad’ Darren Wilson, who would either be caught red-handed or have to explain why he turned his camera off just before addressing a suspected thief.”
While it may act as an “insurance policy” of sorts, University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Amy Hasenberg argues the body camera is not an end-all be-all solution. The trouble: It offers a limited perspective on a line of work rife with complexities and in-the-moment decision-making.
“Even if a camera filmed an officer, a judge and jury would still have to watch and determine whether the actions were warranted,” Hasenberg writes in The Badger Herald student newspaper. “A camera does not always present absolute truth. This means there will still need to be a great deal of interpretation and therefore cases would still be ambiguous, just maybe a little less so. … Per the judicial process, individuals could still spin the events and bias would remain in the judicial process, so legitimate questions remain over whether these cameras would actually be fully effective.”
Ultimately, whether or not the cameras end up rolling, Syracuse University senior Rachel Potter echoes many student columnists in her simple declaration: “Law enforcement must be reformed.”
As she writes in The Daily Orange student newspaper, “There are many options for reform, such as cameras, review boards and independent prosecution that should be considered. Change is long overdue and should be addressed immediately. The longer we wait, the more lives are lost and the lower the public trust in police becomes.”