The widespread popularization of bodycams for police was supposed to bring accountability to the “bad apples” amongst police that drive deadly interactions with citizens. However, years into widespread bodycam use, it is apparent that bodycams, by themselves, do not automatically create accountability.
After the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Walter Scott in North Carolina, federal lawmakers in 2015 began providing millions of dollars in grants to local police departments to purchase bodycams for patrol officers. The hope was that recording police interactions with citizens would lead to more peaceful interactions on the theory that people behave better when they know they are being watched. Or, at the very least, we could later identify interactions in which officers broke rules or laws and thereby trigger some sort of disciplinary mechanism.
Six years later, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, where hundreds of people are still being killed each year by police, we can look back in wonderment at the level of naivete involved in thinking a complex and broken system for holding police accountable would be fixed simply by equipping police with bodycams. The solution to this problem must address its many causes, including legislative loopholes and police resistance to change.
After bodycams became more widespread, many states passed their own set of laws governing their use, including rules for who can access the footage, if it is released at all.
In North Carolina, after police killed Andrew Brown, Jr. during a traffic stop, a district court judge ordered the police to release footage of the incident but only after allowing the department to blur the faces and name tags of the officers involved and limiting the distribution to only Brown’s family.
After the demonstrators in the small town where Brown was killed began peacefully protesting, the mayor declared a state of emergency, authoring the police to use anti-riot measures and implementing an 8 p.m. curfew.
There have been other instances where police “forget” to turn on their bodycams, or the bodycams “fall off” prior to deadly encounters. Other times, police departments simply refuse to release footage that might incriminate officers, claiming that they “own” the footage, not the community.
The laws regulating use of bodycams and mandating access to footage must be amended in ways that actually result in genuine police accountability to their communities.
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