Here is why body cameras aren’t enough

A frame grab from a body camera video shows University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing with his gun drawn approaching the vehicle with the body of Samuel DuBose.
A frame grab from a body camera video shows University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing with his gun drawn approaching the vehicle with the body of Samuel DuBose. –EPA

In recent months, black Americans have been forced to learn the names of dozens of fellow citizens cut down by police in far-flung cities and towns. The chickens of unjust policing have also begun to roost for other citizens: Medford residents have questions after video of Det. Stephen LeBert threatening to “put a hole’’ through a driver’s head.

Some people were hopeful enough to believe that body cameras would stem the proliferation of deaths and abuse at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown. I wasn’t one of them. And Wednesday has given us video of all of the reasons why.

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In Cincinnati, a grand jury indicted officer Ray Tensing on felony murder charges. The indictment came after footage surfaced of the officer shooting 43-year-old Sam DuBose in the head during a traffic stop over a missing license plate.

Tensing, who originally told superiors that he shot DuBose after being dragged by the vehicle, was wearing a body camera, and it captured the entire killing, which Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters called “totally unwarranted’’ and “the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.’’ The video is below:

Tensing faces life in prison if convicted. But the chances of a conviction range from small to infintessimal, and, as a condition of his union contract, Tensing has been placed on paid leave after being charged with a felony.

Body cameras became a hot topic after the death of Brown last August. This Los Angeles Times op-ed, which argued that body cameras were essential for future policing, typified much of the sentiment in support of the devices.

Still, there is something inherently lazy about trying to use cameras as bandages for the gaping, oozing wound of the unique brand of fraternal, endemic racism alive and well in American policing.

This racism is, after all, the reason white men are 3.5 times less likely to be shot in an interaction by police than their black counterparts. Body cameras do nothing to address the culture that produces individuals who kill citizens, nor do they address the laws, departments, or unions that protect them.

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But body cameras aren’t just a lazy solution to bad, racist policing: They’re a lazy solution to all bad policing. Five hundred fifty eight people have been killed by police this year, according to The Washington Post. Many victims were black, but many weren’t. Some of the shootings may have been justified, but others clearly weren’t.

How many need to unjustly die before we find a resolution more serious than body cameras? We need a nationwide overhaul of police tactics, hiring practices, policy, and legal recourse for citizens wronged by law enforcement.

And yet our political machine has a paucity of sympathy or answers for those killed by rogue police. After showing up at a black conference for black activists, and displaying a disturbing unwillingness to speak to black issues, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders threw his weight behind the devices in Lousiana. He joins President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, who also support the measure. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, gutted the budget measure to provide them to police departments, while also slashing legal aid for the poor.

Neither party has positioned themselves on the side of justice in this issue, neither side has made any significant effort to reform police practices, and neither body cameras nor budget cuts will bring us much closer to stemming the tide of extrajudicial killing.

Technology has blunted—and even eliminated—a host of problems for police. Two-way radios allow police to respond and track one another in real time. So does GPS.

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Body cameras do serve a purpose: A body camera foiled a lie told by an officer who, history shows, probably would have been believed by a grand jury without the footage. But Tensing knew the camera was there. A 25-year-old university officer with four years of experience, he could not have been unaware of the scrutiny facing police, especially since much of said scrutiny has come down on Cleveland, four hours north of Cincinatti.

The presence of an all-seeing eye, a device he could do little to obscure with the power to either corroborate or refute any story he told, did not stop him from shooting DuBose. Nor did it stop him from lying to his superiors.

But a camera can’t stop a shooting from happening.

We should not focus our efforts on catching police in lies. We should focus our efforts on addressing what allows them to lie. Technology is capable of many useful things, but it will neither solve nor outpace bad policing.

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