Could the South Carolina Police Shooting Be the Last Push for Body Cameras?

Advocates say the technology is an important tool, but not a cure-all.

Before the public had heard the names Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the debate over police-officer body cameras had already begun in law enforcement circles, with advocates and dissenters weighing the costs, benefits, and best practices associated with their use.

Those police-linked deaths last summer pushed the conversation into the public eye, leading to President Obama's December announcement of a special task force to examine police tactics and a funding pledge for camera rollouts nationwide.

Body-camera advocates now hope that the latest police shooting—last week in South Carolina—catalyzes an even greater push to get more lenses on officers' lapels.

Michael Slager, the police officer who killed Walter Scott on Saturday in North Charleston, wasn't wearing a body camera. But video shot by a bystander showed Slager shooting Scott eight times in the back as he was running away, leading to murder charges for the officer on Tuesday. Without that footage, advocates say, the outcome of the deadly encounter would've been different.

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"The shooting would never have moved into the consciousness of Americans but for that camera," said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who's introduced legislation supporting police body cameras. The case for police officers to wear them "was made as profoundly in [North Charleston] as it could be made."

Body-camera promoters say they are a crucial tool for modern policing, enhancing law-enforcement transparency and boosting officer accountability. Video footage erases most ambiguity surrounding officers' encounters with the public—like Brown's August death in Ferguson, Mo., in which no clear-cut series of events was immediately established. And though advocates may differ on the particulars—how often the cameras should be running, for instance—they agree that momentum on the issue is building.

Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst, said citizen-generated video like the footage from North Charleston has opened officers' eyes to the benefits of body cameras. They know that when bystanders observe "something dramatic," someone is going to whip out a camera.

"They figure they might as well have video that captures events from their own perspective," he said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey—cochair of Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and a supporter of body cameras—said the South Carolina footage laid out the facts of what happened Saturday in a way only firsthand video can. Just hearing about the events, he said, wouldn't give the complete picture. An interim report to the president from the task force backed the use of body cameras, and the full report is expected later this month.

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Ramsey said he's found that law enforcement on the whole supports the use of body cameras.

"Police officers want to make sure people have the whole story," he said.

In North Charleston, officers haven't been wearing body cameras. But that's not for lack of interest from city officials. The police department announced in early February that it would put $85,000 toward the purchase of 115 cameras. On Wednesday, Mayor Keith Summey said at a press conference that the city has ordered 101 of them to date, and will order 150 more "so every officer on the street" can wear one. State lawmakers in South Carolina—and in dozens of other states—are considering body-camera bills.

In Congress, there was a push from some members after the Ferguson shooting for police to use more cameras. In addition to his camera legislation, Cleaver—along with Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas—called on Obama to allocate funds for police cameras in the 2016 budget. He said he hopes more lawmakers will take up the body-camera cause once Congress returns from recess on Monday.

According to a September Police Executive Research Forum report, use of the cameras in some police departments has significantly reduced the number of citizen complaints against officers and minimized officers' use of force. But advocates say they're not a panacea.

Stanley noted that after Ferguson, some people viewed the cameras as a "silver bullet"—that if only Brown's death had been captured on video, perhaps there wouldn't have been the ensuing murkiness. But video doesn't solve all problems, he said.

In the case of Garner—who was restrained by NYPD officers for selling loose cigarettes and died after he was put in a chokehold—bystander footage of his death did not result in any indictment of the officers involved, an issue critics of the policemen's conduct decried. And the officers, who were being filmed just a few feet away from the confrontation, didn't seem to modify their behavior because they were on camera.

But in Stanley's view, "the fact that it didn't solve every problem with our criminal justice system doesn't mean that it was not a very useful thing, because the facts were clear. Even if it didn't bring justice, it made clear just how big an injustice there was."

Lindsay Miller of the PERF, who coauthored the report, also indicated the cameras are no cure-all.

"They're not a substitute for good training, for good policies on use of force," Miller said, or "for building good police-community relations—they're just really one tool."

Stanley said the issue of body cameras is a difficult one, including for his organization, which has traditionally advocated for citizens' privacy.

But, Stanley said, "on balance, body cameras should—if they're implemented with good policies—be a net positive and help to address the serious problem of police abuse that we have across the country."