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When I read of Los Angeles cops disabling recording devices by removing antennas from their cars when they enter black neighborhoods, I know there are limitations to this technology.

police body cams

Who Do You Believe, Police Body Cams or Your Lying Eyes?—Jamala Rogers

Here in St. Louis, the public found out the police code for being recorded with the video tape of the 2014 beat-down of black teenager Cortez Bufford. When Bufford’s attorneys recently released the tape you can hear Officer Kelli Swinton warning her co-conspirators to “Hold up!...We’re red now…just wait.” “Red” means there’s recordings going on—make nice and look legal. It could be a police cam or a citizen’s camera. All charges were later dropped against Bufford and he has filed a law suit against the St. Louis PD for its brutality.

Some cities, like San Diego, have seen a significant reduction in excessive police force. Comparative studies have shown the cops who didn’t wear cams are more likely to issue citations or make more arrests.

The demands for police body cams is growing as urban communities experience more blatant forms of police terrorism. The demands are coming from a place of utter frustration and profound grief. And while I understand the desperate need for anything that can aid citizens in holding officers accountable along with the departments that often cover their behinds, I suggest we slow down and look both at what we know and what we don’t know.

Videos have not proven to make such cases a slam-dunk because of the same kind of police interpretation presented in the Rodney King case.

The first such police video that was widely publicized was the beat-down of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Tased, stomped unmercifully and hit numerous times with police batons, King suffered nine skull fractures, a broken leg, a concussion, injuries to both knees, a shattered eye socket and cheekbone and a paralyzed face. He would never be the same mentally or physically, dying at the premature age of 47 years old.

Black and brown communities thought the video would be vindication of our long expressed experiences with police violence often hidden from the mainstream society.

By the time the attorneys for the police officers involved in the beating got finished interpreting the video, jurors were made to believe that all King’s defensive moves to protect himself were aggressive moves towards officers. It was a case of who do you believe-us or your lying eyes? All of the white officers were acquitted of criminal charges which resulted in South Central going up in flames.

In the last twenty-five years since that infamous video, there have been thousands of police encounters videotaped and once the internet emerged, they were uploaded on the World Wide Web. Many of these videos show the actual murder of the citizen by police. Examples of unarmed black men like Eric Gardner, Walter Scott, Kajieme Powell and most recently Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott have unfortunately become commonplace in our public consciousness.

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Videos have not proven to make such cases a slam-dunk because of the same kind of police interpretation presented in the Rodney King case. Add to that the almost indisputable claim of an officer feeling “threatened” and a visual accounting of the incident as evidence of criminal action literally evaporates like a Snapchat photo.

It’s no surprise that nearly 80 percent of police dashboard cameras of Chicago PD and LAPD reported experiencing audio problems which police officials blamed on “officer error” and “intentional destruction.” If there’s no audio, police get to make up their own script about an incident.

The use of body cams brings with it a truckload of legitimate privacy issues. What situations should be recorded? Which incidents will be exempt from recordings? How long will footage be stored as well as how and where? Who has access to the footage? What is the process for complying with open records requests? And what about cops who fail to turn their cams on or who sabotages the video tape.

The Movement for Black Lives released its policy platform on a host of issues this summer facing the African American Community. Regarding body cams, the group adopted the guidelines set forth by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The Conference urges police departments to “commit to a set of well-defined purposes for camera use, and need to specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access.”

That’s probably not going to happen without interference from the usual suspects. Police associations are doing all they can to block the use of body cams and block the public’s access to video and audio tapes.

It appears that the use of body and dashboard cameras by police departments is inevitable. A recent national survey of nearly every large police department by the Major Cities Chiefs Association indicates that nearly 95 percent plan to move forward with body cams or have already instituted their use.

After the murder of Mike Brown Ferguson PD rushed to buy cams. St. Louis County Police is phasing cameras in as well. NYPD’s court-ordered implementation of body cams is a result of its unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy. The Department of Justice plans to buy 50,000 body cameras for departments with a $75 million price tag over the next three years.

We, as citizens, cannot make the demand for cameras without staying around for the necessary fight to implement fair and effective policies on the use of the cameras and the subsequent recordings. If we don’t, citizens should count on a very expensive program that we pay for but only serves to shield police from the very accountability that the public has been demanding.

jamala rogers

Jamala Rogers