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Body Cams Won’t Save Us

In the end, all they really do is document the problems we refuse to see

For months, the Louisville Metro Police Department swore that there was no body camera footage of Breonna Taylor’s fatal shooting during a no-knock raid in the middle of the night. The agency held its stance even as a report revealed at least one of the officers involved in Taylor’s shooting had been wearing a camera. 

The public lamented the lack of something tangible that could finally steer the criminal case against the three officers — Brett Hankison, Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — who botched the raid. Then, a bombshell report from VICE over the weekend revealed there were actually reams of body-camera footage from Taylor’s killing, after all. The leaked footage only depicted the aftermath of Taylor’s death, but it confirmed a number of suspicions in many heads. 

The contents are damning, to a degree: It depicts Hankison, Cosgrove and other officers involved in the shooting milling around the crime scene freely, despite strict protocols that require officers to immediately debrief with internal investigators after a use of force. It’s clear that disorder is everywhere, with SWAT officers openly wondering why Hankison is wandering around Taylor’s home. 

But the video doesn’t actually provide us with new information — investigators already knew the LMPD had screwed up protocol after the raid. Mostly, it re-invigorated the public’s thirst for the actual footage of Taylor’s murder. Somehow, it feels like that could prove something no one, not even Taylor’s right-wing detractors, can refute. What we crave, as usual, is something shocking enough to trigger genuine consensus and change.  

The rise of police body cams in the last half-decade has shined a bright and often unforgiving light on instances of police abuse, proving a point about all the things we don’t see and hear in official police reports. Raw footage helped bring some semblance of justice for Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teen who was shot in the back by an officer, Jason Van Dyke, that initially claimed McDonald was charging him during the 2014 incident. More recently, an officer-worn body cam inadvertently caught one a cop planting drugs on a suspect during a stop. In both these cases (and many others), the benefit of the camera seems obvious — hard footage seems to refute police lies during investigations and work to keep cops accountable in the field. 

Yet study after study has found that body cameras haven’t really reshaped how officers police, nor helped prevent lethal confrontations. (It does lower the number of frivolous complaints against police, but that’s not quite the endgame here.) After years of expanding use, the jury remains out on what a newfangled era of transparency has actually brought us. The only thing we know for sure now is that body camera policies won’t save innocent people from getting abused or shot. 

“It wouldn’t have made a difference had officers been wearing body cams at the time of their raid on Breonna’s home,” argues law professor and criminal justice expert Jody Armour. “Breonna wasn’t killed by the absence of a body cam. She was killed by the bad legal precedent and bad police policy. As long as the law allows them to do what they did, what difference can body cams make? They just show you the police officers following the law.” 

Our national obsession with body cameras took off in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson, who argued he shot Brown in self-defense. The lengthy fight over the truth of that encounter ultimately sparked the Brown family to lobby for police body cams, gaining a swell of attention and support from the broader public. Pre-Ferguson, the body camera was an experimental tool being played with at a few dozen law enforcement agencies around the country. But within only three years, just about half of U.S. police departments had adopted the tech for their patrol officers. (The public overwhelmingly supported the move.) 

Then we started to see the cracks in the promise of transparency. In 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Samuel DuBose during a routine stop for a missing license plate. Tensing’s claim that DuBose had tried to drag him by accelerating the car didn’t hold water, nor did his assertion of self-defense — DuBose was driving away when Tensing pulled the trigger, sending a flurry of bullets through the rear of the car. It looked like a legal layup with a crucial assist from the footage, yet the case got deadlocked and ultimately was dismissed. The next year, the nation witnessed the body cam video of a Mesa, Arizona police officer, Philip Brailsford, killing a sobbing, unarmed man in the hallway of a hotel. Again, though, the jury emerged from its consideration of the case with a clean acquittal of Brailsford, seemingly contradicting every horrifying moment seen in the footage. 

The very public fights to reveal the body-cam videos in the killings of other unarmed people like Keith Lamont Scott and Charly Keunang showed the value of raw, unedited point-of-view footage. But more and more, we began to see the limits of new technology in the face of very old legal structures and biases, Armour says. One glaring issue is the oft-vague parameters by which officers are instructed to turn their cameras on and off, and the way footage just seems to disappear or “not exist,” as in the Taylor killing. 

Many expected that a sea of cameras could curb the corruption and mistakes that otherwise go undocumented in police work. But it can’t fix how many homicides and rapes go unsolved in Black communities, nor can it repair the impact of the failed “War on Drugs.” For Armour, it’s just more proof that the last decade of police reforms have failed because of fundamental flaws in policing, not simply a lack of oversight. Body cams or not, American police are allowed to use lethal force if and when they feel “reasonable fear” — a standard that gives huge leeway in an unlimited number of scenarios. The cameras mostly just allow us to rewatch those sins in grainy detail. 

“We now know that technological tweaks like a camera can’t prevent the loss of innocent life or prevent violent encounters with police. We understand that even things like implicit bias training and de-escalation training can’t do it, either,” Armour says. “So body cams have shown us, more clearly than ever, that we need to reduce the footprint of law enforcement in communities, not just document it.” 

In that light, spending hundreds of millions across the country to put a camera on every patrol cop wouldn’t be a step forward. After all, reducing the footprint of police means finding other places for that money (a place where law-enforcement tech juggernauts aren’t going to profit handsomely off sales, ideally). Without major changes to the laws that govern how cops operate (like, say, a ban on no-knock warrants), the body cam is merely an accessory, not a solution, Armour tells me. 

A body camera didn’t save Philandro Castile four years ago, and it probably wouldn’t have saved Amadou Diallo two decades ago when he reached for his wallet in a New York City stairway. Hell, video footage didn’t bring Rodney King justice in 1992, either. A camera can’t prevent cops from being racist, under-trained and overpowered. It won’t stop a cop who lives by a slogan like “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six” from pulling the trigger in a moment of doubt. 

It reminds me of how another bit of body-cam footage went viral yesterday: The arrest of Donald Trump campaign advisor Brad Parscale, who was reported to police as having a weapon and potentially a danger to harm himself. The camera captures him walking up to police calmly, one hand gripping a can of Bud Light and the other just out by his hip. Despite an officer standing in front of him without issues, a voice calls out from the distance: “Get down!” 

Parscale, still confused, just stands still as more police rush him. Then out of nowhere, an officer throws his frame into Parscale’s legs, sending the man crashing to the asphalt for no apparent reason. It’s a minor scene, completely counter to the fatal chaos of the raid that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville. But connecting the two instances captures the spectrum of everything a body cam was supposed to help fix — the small injustices of overeager cops, and the major ones of killers who always shoot first. 

So far, it’s done neither. The body cam might be here to stay, but in 2020, we need so much more. 

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