"Thank God for cellphone video cameras." Those are the words of William Murphy, Jr., a lawyer for Freddie Gray's family, during a press conference Monday night—the night when Baltimore streets broke out in violent protests following Gray's death. "Because now the truth is finally coming out," he said. "And it's ugly."
It's hard to imagine Friday's charges against the six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's death if cell phone cameras had not existed. The video of Gray being hauled into a police car after his arrest provoked many questions—Why was he arrested? When was he injured? Why did he appear limp?
The charges that Maryland state prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced were stunning, not only for their severity—second degree depraved-heart murder, manslaughter by vehicle, and assault were among the charges—but that they occurred at all. National numbers aren't readily available, but for officers to be brought up on charges for their actions on the job is a rare occurrence.
"You don't want to have these incidents occur for the camera to see what happened," Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana.
It's easy to translate the gratitude Murphy Jr. felt toward citizen documentarians to a tangible solution for police brutality against African-Americans. Body cameras seem like the next logical step in the movement to change the culture that exists between police and the communities that distrust them. When a man is killed in an interaction with a police officer, a witness is wiped from the Earth. The body camera, proponents rightfully think, can preserve—in part—the deceased's point of view.
But more video footage won't cure the underlying cultural problems there. It may be better to think of cameras as a diagnostic tool, revealing the worst consequences of the faults within the criminal justice system.
"I think that tech in general, and body cameras in particular, are a part of solution, but they are only a part," says Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana—a city with as violent a history as any in America.
Freeman-Wilson chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors working group on cities and policing. In January, the group, which included mayors and police chiefs around the country (Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake was among them), released a report with suggestions to improve relations between police and communities. Their recommendations are largely reflective of those from President Obama's working group on 21st century policing—that first and foremost, programs need to target police and community culture, to usher in a new age of law enforcement transparency.
It's the culture that will be the hardest to change, Gary—along with five other cities—will be taking part in a pilot program with the Justice Department to quantify whether the recommendations from the presidential working group are effective. They'll be gathering data on citizens' sentiment, but one of the most profound measures of success, Freeman-Wilson says, will be that videos showing officer misconduct don't occur—and not because interactions with cops aren't being filmed, but because the behavior has changed.
"I certainly don't think that anybody sees them [body camera] as a panacea," Freeman-Wilson says. "If you think about it, it's after the fact. You want to make sure you are recruiting the right officers, you want to make sure they have the proper training. You don't want to have these incidents occur for the camera to see what happened."
"There's no doubt," she says, "the narrative would be different [without cell phone cameras]. You saw how the North Charleston media narrative changed once that camera account came out. There's no question. We want to change the narrative in the way that these stories don't want to be told."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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