Body Cameras Are Betraying Their Promise

They’re not transparent. They’re not independent. They’re not even turned on when they should be.

Darron Cummings / AP

When they were introduced to the American public two years ago, police body-cameras seemed like they might help everyone. Police departments liked that body cams reduced the number of public complaints about officer behavior. Communities and protesters liked that they would introduce some transparency and accountability to an officer’s actions.

Today, research suggests that body cameras significantly reduce the number of public complaints about police. But recent events subvert the idea that the devices help or increase the power of regular people—that is, the policed. Instead of making officers more accountable and transparent to the public, body cameras may be making officers and departments more powerful than they were before.

This is happening across the country. And there are three trends that are repeating themselves over and over.

First, many officers are (either earnestly or conveniently) forgetting to activate their cameras when they’re supposed to. Take the case of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed 31-year-old black man who was fatally shot this month by local police officers in Washington, D.C., after his motorcycle crashed into their car. Contrary to District of Columbia policy, no officer at the scene activated their body camera until after the shooting. The city released footage of Sterling’s final moments this week—but that video begins more than a minute after shots were fired.

Also this week, The Washington Post revealed that an officer present at the shooting of Keith Scott, in Charlotte, North Carolina, did not activate his body camera when he should have. The officer only turned it on immediately after another officer at the scene shot Scott. Due to a feature of the camera that saves the 30 seconds of video prior to its activation, this meant that while the shots were captured on camera, the footage had no sound. (Dashboard-camera video released over the weekend seemed to show that Scott, a 43-year-old black man, had his hands by his side when another officer shot him four times and killed him.)

Or consult the case of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager who was shot and killed by a Chicago Police Department officer in late July. The officer’s body camera was also turned off during the shooting.

In case after case, police departments say officers did not have their body cameras activated when it counted. It can seem as though incidents where body-cam footage helped secure an indictment—such as in Marksville, Louisiana, last November, or as in Cincinnati last July—are more rare than the cases where they don’t.

These are breaches of protocol—incidents where events didn’t happen as the law would require. Often, these violations are never significantly punished. This is the second major threat to body-camera accountability: If there’s not significant discipline for officers who fail to follow local policies—as the officers failed in D.C., Chicago, and Charlotte—then it doesn’t matter what’s in the policy.

“Even if a department like Chicago has a great, green-check-mark policy, there are still lapses by officers,” said Harlan Yu, a technologist at Upturn, a civil-rights consulting firm. “In the Paul O’Neal shooting, cameras were on before, they appear to be on after, but then—oh well!—something happened” during the shooting itself.

“We see this in Chicago over and over in other areas—there are all sorts of stories about Chicago cops purposefully deactivating their dash cams, even though they’re required to use them and the city pays for them. But who is disciplining officers when they fail to follow the policies? If taxpayers are spending money on these cameras, they sure as hell better be working when a shooting happens,” he added.

The third threat is that many states have introduced or passed new laws that restrict public access to footage while preserving police access.

In October, North Carolina will enforce a new law that only allows courts, and not politicians, to release any body-camera footage. The law asks state judges to weigh various factors before releasing a video, including whether it is “necessary to advance a compelling public interest” and whether it would “create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice.”

North Carolina is not the only state to restrict access to body-camera footage. The Urban Institute says that Illinois, Texas, South Carolina, and other states have all blocked the public’s access to it.

To be sure, some of this restriction may make sense. Body cameras present a somewhat counterintuitive method for keeping the police accountable. Though the devices are meant to preserve the actions of individual officers, they do so by filming members of the community: Cops may be the target of body cams, but they’re not the subject of its footage. And most people filmed by a body camera are just going about their day, unaware they’re being filmed at all. This means that some states do need to adjust their freedom-of-information policies to protect people’s privacy.

Yet that requirement alone does not explain all the restrictions, including those recently enacted by North Carolina. And what makes many of these policies even worse is that, in the vast majority of cases, officers can view body-camera footage before filing a report about an incident even when other witnesses cannot. This even holds for use-of-force incidents.

“In most jurisdictions, because unions have fought really hard for this, officers get to view footage before writing their report,” Yu said.

When Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights conducted an audit of local body-camera policies last month, they found that no major urban police department required officers to file a report before they got to see footage of it. Only a few cities—including Atlanta and Oakland—introduced a special two-step process for use-of-force incidents, where officers have to file a preliminary report that they can then augment after watching footage.

This kind of policy completely subverts the egalitarianism that body cameras are supposed to ensure. Instead of providing an independent documentation of an event, body cameras seem to be one more way that police officers can shore up their version of events on the ground.

Body cameras represent a significant investment. In the last two years, the U.S. government has spent more than $23 million buying body cameras for local and state police departments. This week, the Department of Justice put up another $20 million in grants.

When used as they’re intended, body cameras do sometimes capture the most flagrant and dangerous officer behavior. But if the laws around them do not change, they will become an effective replacement for dashboard cameras: another fancy technology, initially embraced by the police and the policed, that often doesn’t seem to work at the most crucial moments.