Police pull up suddenly on some young black men. One of them runs. A cops gives chase. “Shots fired.” One more dead. “I feared for my life.”
This is a script that is running on loopback in cities large and small across America. But it’s a script that some say might become less popular if there was an unimpeachable witness to the play – video as it happened.
The Oakland Police have had body video cameras for some years now. Three years ago to this day, late into the night of May 5th, 2012, Oakland Police Officer Miguel Masso was wearing his camera as he and his partner cruised East Oakland. Spotting 18 year old Alan Blueford and his two companions “walking while black,” the script played itself out.
As officer Masso approached the young men he turned on his body camera. But when Alan took off running and he began a footchase he TURNED IT OFF. Alan ran into the midst of a street party and the event was witnessed by a number of people, but despite the gathering no video was recorded.
Alan Blueford’s parents will never know for sure what happened just minutes after midnight. They do know that Alan died then in the street with three bullets to his chest. Witness testimony is conflicted and Masso’s testimony – in which he admits to essentially having a PTSD episode before firing his weapon(1) – is riddled with inconsistencies and is contradicted by the evidence. The fact that Miguel Masso took one of the four shots he fired in his own foot further compounds the fog. A camera might have shown what Masso should have seen, rather than what he says he thought he saw.
Body cameras for police are now perceived, especially by politicians, as a panacea. Pots of money are being allocated by the federal government for their acquisition by local law enforcement; just days ago the Mayor of San Francisco budgeted $6.6M for 1800 cameras for every SFPD officer. They are also massively popular with the public.
Body cameras do “work” – when they are on, and when the public gets to see what happened. On March 16th, 2014, Albuquerque officers executed James Boyd, a homeless, mentally ill man camping in a rural area of the city. Helmet camera video (warning: graphic) from one of the officers at the scene caught the execution and it was released shortly afterwards, causing massive public outrage. Two of the officers involved were finally indicted for murder on January of 2015.
But much of the time body cameras work only to benefit police departments. Cameras mysteriously “malfunction” a few seconds before an officer fires. Cameras aren’t turned on before critical engagements. Video is released immediately if it is favorable to the police, but released only after-the-fact, or never, otherwise. Video of Ernest Duenez Jr. being riddled with bullets as he emerged from a car unarmed (warning: graphic) was never made public until after legal proceedings had terminated. Los Angeles just approved a body camera policy that allows officers to review video before making a report, giving them the ability to justify their actions a posteriori and never be caught in the lies they so often tell otherwise.
We don’t know what the psychological effect is on officers of knowing that one is or could be being filmed, but circumstantial evidence suggests little effect on their behavior other than to enrage them when they see a camera being pointed. It is perhaps unanswerable whether the potential for video has prevented even more police murders than are now occuring. But what we do perceive is that despite video after video catching police beating people, planting evidence, or shooting them in the back, the number of those killed by police does not appear to be going down.
Body cameras do not change the laws that give police a license to kill. Your camera looks like a gun? – you, or Rekia Boyd standing next you, is dead. You made a motion with your arm – I’ll shoot you in the face – and you and the Raynor family will be thankful I’m such a bad shot. You’re just happen to be holding a screwdriver or a pen? – you die. The voices in my head say you might have a gun? – I’ll kill you.
More significantly, attempting to leash the police by videoing what they do is little more than an attempt to ignore the underlying problem. If there are to be police at all then we should not have to worry about how to leash them. Those entrusted with the right to surveil, detain, arrest and kill us should act according to a higher standard, sworn to a code not of silence but of honor, and judged more harshly (rather than not at all) when they fail. I hate to repeat “with great power comes great responsibility” and yet such an obvious maxim is honored only in breach by police, who neither take responsibility nor by law have any responsibility for their actions.
Alan Blueford’s death was an act of violence committed by an officer who should never had been hired, emboldened by attitudes common in our country and protected by a system of injustice. Alan’s death, and the hundreds of others which have motivated people to action, can have an effect. But to effect change we must understand the lessons of these deaths and demand real remedies.
- – Body cameras and similar won’t solve anything if officers believe they can turn them off, or claim they “malfunctioned,” without being subject to the severest penalties – felony prosection and loss of job.
- – Body cameras and similar will be useless unless the data obtained is un-eraseable and un-editable, so that its existence and integrity is assured both to the public and to the courts.
- – Body cameras and similar will only serve the police state unless they are released to the public when there is a serious incident or controversy. No one is suggesting that the people have a right to watch police watching each other eating donuts and farting. But when there is a question of police/citizen conduct there should rarely be a question of release, and if there is, it should be a matter resolved quickly and liberally in favor of the people by an independent court.
- – Body cameras and similar will not change the cult of compliance – the irrational belief by all police everywhere that a youngster, or a confused, or autistic, or mentally or physically handicapped person will be able to understand and execute a police order instantly, even when given by an undercover cop. “You don’t or can’t understand my order? – It’s your death, ‘cause you were born that way.” And the jury, if it ever gets that far, inevitably agrees.
- – Body cameras and similar will only be a palliative unless the laws regarding when police are allowed to use deadly force are changed. Until there are 900,000(2) fewer people walking around with a license of a particularly dangerous sort, the murders are going to continue, cameras or no.
- – Body cameras and similar will have minimal effect unless the incestuous relationship between those who are charged with investigating police and the police themselves is changed. Unless those responsible for investigating police conduct have no relationship with the police and do not depend on police support for their other duties, as District Attorney’s and Federal law enforcement agencies do, a mountain of video evidence will never be enough to effect justice.
- – Body cameras and similar do not address the real societal problem of racism, which manifests as police attitudes and training, but extends through society. It is nurtured from the day a minority child is born, to the day an old, black man, sent to prison for life for stealing cigarettes by virtue of “three strikes,” dies in prison.
- – And last, body cameras and similar cannot heal a society which created a school to prison pipeline instead of an equal educaton system, incarerates vastly more people, mostly minority, than any other, treats the mentally ill as criminals and jails as treatment centers, and thinks of poverty as divine punishment.
Changing this culture and creating laws that in truth embody liberty and justice for all is likely the hardest task we could ever undertake. But it needs to be done.
Alan Blueford’s last words were “I didn’t do anything.” These must not be ours.
(1) “Officer Masso went into ‘auto pilot’ and could no longer hear.” – DA’s report.
(2) There were approximately 120,000 Federal and 765,000 State and local sworn personel as of 2008, for a total of almost 900,000, according to Wikipedia.