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Police Body Cams Are not a Cure-All

There is a growing movement to defund police departments or at least reduce their budgets to divert funding to underserved community needs.

Police response? No, do not defund us. Instead, give us millions of dollars more. We will buy body cameras to fix all of the problems people are complaining about.

Academia weighed in on the issue through a 2016 University of Cambridge study on 2,000 U.S. and U.K. cops. They observed a huge drop in complaints about police resulting from “the ‘digital witness’ of the camera,” which caused positive improvements by everyone.

However, a trial study evaluating 2,224 Metropolitan officers in Washington, D.C., came to the opposite conclusion, reporting in 2019 that “cameras did not meaningfully affect police behavior on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force.”

Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C., identifies three important factors concerning the effectiveness of body cams: (1) When do police turn them on?, (2) How often is the recording reviewed and by whom?, and (3) Will police be held accountable for what the body cam does show?

An unactivated body cam is of no use. If no one reviews body-cam video, it is of no use. If there is no accountability, again it is of no use.

New York City rolled out a pilot program for police body cameras several months after the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, 43, whose last words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry against police brutality. Garner, an unarmed Black man, died after plain clothes officer Daniel Pantaleo pulled him down in a choke hold during an arrest for allegedly selling unlicensed cigarettes. The grand jury would not indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death after seeing bystander video. Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, called the body-cam program a “waste of money.”

Texas Southern University researcher Howard Henderson pointed out that Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knew he was being recorded the entire time he had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. That knowledge did not deter Chauvin.

Sure, body cams might help in certain situations in combating the scourge of police brutality, but until police are truly and consistently held accountable, body cams are basically just budget-swelling political theater props. 


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