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Closing Argument

What Bodycams Tell Us About the Challenges of Policing the Police

The cameras and other police accountability steps are popular with the public — but not always particularly effective.

A White male police officer holds a police vest, pointing out its body camera.
Chicago Police Department 19th District Commander Marc Buslik discusses body camera policies and demonstrates their use on Dec. 28, 2016.

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Over the past decade, the adoption of body-worn cameras has been one of the most popular and durable police reforms in the U.S.

The technology has enjoyed broad support from both the general public and from police. After a slew of high-profile shootings seared public consciousness through the lens of bystander video, the wisdom of recording all police interactions with the public has been hard to argue against.

A recent investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times, however, found that the promise of body cameras has been undermined by policies around the release of footage. “Departments across the country have routinely delayed releasing footage, released only partial or redacted video or refused to release it at all,” write Eric Umansky and Umar Farooq. “They have frequently failed to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse and have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating police misconduct.”

Their review of 79 police killings captured by body camera footage in June 2022 found that footage has only been made public in 42% of cases.

Another limitation of body camera footage is that it relies on subjective interpretation. When TheGrio news network recently sent footage of the same police use-of-force incidents to 10 experts, interpretations of what they saw and heard varied dramatically, even on basic matters including whether or not the subject complied with officer demands.

Perhaps hard-to-get footage is better than none at all, though. A recent NBC News investigation found that unlike local law enforcement, federal agents don’t generally wear cameras, essentially turning shootings by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Marshals into a black box.

Once body camera footage is released, it can be instrumental in countering false police accounts that likely would have been accepted as true. Take the case of Ronald Greene, who was killed by state police outside of Monroe, Louisiana, in 2019. Officers reported he had died in a car crash. But body camera footage revealed that they’d beaten, tased, and mocked Greene and then left him handcuffed and shackled face down while waiting for an ambulance. Three of the officers involved are facing criminal charges, and the agency is under federal investigation.

Victims of police violence and their families often seek the release of body camera footage, in the hope that public outrage will lead to accountability that is otherwise elusive. This week, the mother of an 11-year-old Black boy shot by police in Mississippi made exactly that demand after a grand jury declined to press charges. “I feel disgusted, outraged and emotionally damaged,” she said at a Wednesday press conference, after viewing the footage in private.

Police oversight agencies, such as civilian complaint review boards, benefit from the footage — when they can get a hold of it. As we covered in a prior edition of Closing Argument, these kinds of organizations are popular (many of the nation’s large cities have one), but they have dramatically different amounts of power from place to place. It’s common for their power to expand or contract as political dynamics shift in a given city or state, especially through protracted battles with police unions.

The Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability is one of the few in the country with direct access to body camera footage, a power it received after outrage over the shooting death of Laquan McDonald in 2014. But that hasn’t stopped the city’s police union from trying to bargain away other avenues of public oversight. In current contract negotiations, the union is seeking a provision that would allow officers accused of misconduct to remove their cases from the docket of the public Chicago Police Board, “and instead have them decided privately by an outside third party,” the Chicago Tribune reports.

In New York the civilian review board must navigate a maze of bureaucracy to obtain body camera footage, and now faces a new stumbling block. The board announced this week that it was suspending several categories of investigation into police misconduct due to budget cuts demanded by Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer.

In Florida, civilian review boards face a threat to their very existence. A state representative recently filed a bill that would make it illegal for cities to create any kind of agency for receiving, processing, or investigating “complaints of misconduct by law enforcement and corrections officers.” The bill sponsor cited the stress that investigations can put on officers. It's a move reminiscent of other efforts by state officials in Florida to restrict how their local counterparts handle the justice system.

In New Jersey, by contrast, lawmakers advanced a bill this week that would give civilian complaint review boards the power to subpoena witnesses — an authority that these boards and their supporters often covet. A proposed amendment would only apply the power to four of the state’s largest departments as a pilot program for five years, making the bill bittersweet for advocates of more oversight. “Examples of police misconduct and brutality exist in literally every corner of New Jersey,” said Joe Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, according to the New Jersey Monitor. “So civilian oversight is important everywhere.”

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.