Perspective: The limits of body cameras

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Inherent biases may prevent the trendy law enforcement tool from spawning a new era of reform and accountability in Columbus.

Last year, the cityof Columbus spent $300 million operating its police department. This year, those costs will rise by nearly 4 percent to $311 million and represent nearly 40 percent of the city's total budget ($835 million). The city's next largest expenditure is the fire department ($228 million), followed by recreation and parks ($35 million). None of these costs, of course, are the stuff of headlines, but they tell us something important about our city: We spend more on police than anything else-and the cost of running this single entity, with about 1,900 officers, has consistently climbed-a 28 percent increase since 2007.

This is one starting point for thinking through the proposed adoption of police body cameras in Columbus. The program, after all, won't come cheap. Startup costs for the first year alone are estimated at $14.5 million, with video storage estimated at roughly $4 million. Over a five-year period, costs will likely increase, as they have for many departments nationwide.(Two suppliers were still vying to win the Columbus contract in early October. Joe Lombardi, director of finance and management for Columbus, declined to name the finalists, citing city policy.)

Accountability and transparency are the oft-cited goals. Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs, during a recent City Council hearing on body cameras, defended the multimillion dollar proposal by saying it would improve "transparency and accountability" and document "the countless hours of courageous and committed policing that is going on in our community."

But transparency and accountability mean different things to different people. "I'm here today as a citizen and as a black man who, despite my love for this country, this state and this city [is] at risk every day when I leave my home, that I won't come back to my family that evening, just because of the color of my skin," began Terry Boyd, a candidate for Franklin County commissioner, at the hearing. The former Republican mayoral candidate went on to criticize the city's slow adoption of body cameras. "I'm scared to death, because there's no accountability, and there's no transparency. I don't expect you to understand what it means to be pulled over, to be treated inappropriately, and possibly harassed, just because you are a black man, which I've been by our police officers."

Manufacturers of police body cameras do not mention racist cops, or the killing of unarmed black men by police, when trying to sell their wares. Industry leader Taser International, for example, markets body cameras based on an adversarial relationship between police and civilians. "When controversy hits, the public usually hears one side of the story. Make sure it is yours," says one Taser promotional video. As the largest manufacturer of police body cameras, Taser promotes the technology as a way for police departments and cities to protect themselves against dubious citizen complaints. Taser has seen its profits soar since protests against policy brutality first began, following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Vievu, another player in the fast-growing market, also views body-cam footage as a way to empower and protect police first. As Steve Ward, CEO and founder of Vievu, wrote ina recent blog post: "I started VIEVU because cops need a way to record their daily activities for accountability, transparency, and protection from false complaints."

Yet among many activists in the Black Lives Matters movement, body cameras are seen as a way to finally hold police accountable for the use of excessive force, especially as the killing of unarmed black men and black children by police continues to make headlines nationwide. There were 990 fatal shootings by police in 2015, according to arecent analysis by theWashington Post: 93 of the 990 people killed were unarmed-with a disproportionate number being black men (40 percent). After adjusting for population, thePostconcluded that an unarmed black man is seven times more likely than an unarmed white man to be fatally shot by police. Despite the rapid adoption of body cameras by police nationwide, more fatal shootings of unarmed black men and children have spurred protests, including the September killing of 13-year-old Ty're King in Columbus. His death is still under investigation by a grand jury and has renewed local calls for body cameras.

Body cameras are not a panacea. For starters, the footage produced is not a neutral form of evidence. It captures the subjectivity of a police officer, not that of a civilian. Recently, I watched a few dozen videos from among the hundreds of police body-cam videos posted on YouTube. It is a strange and distorting experience-like entering the tunnel of another person's vison or playing a first-person shooter video game. Each time I pressed play,wewere chasing down a fleeing suspect-not the officer alone;wewere putting on our seatbelt and placing our hands on the steering wheel on a high-speed chase.Wewere kicking down a front door and pointing a gun at a domestic violence suspect. In one video, I could even see the breath of an officer in the cold air. In another, I grew slightly nauseated, as the officer turned his head rapidly from side-to-side, creating a pixelated blur. At times, I even found myself projecting onto the police officer, speculating what his thoughts and fears might be in a certain moment. And although I can't say if my heartbeat sped up during tense moments, I only learned later, while reading social science research about the interpretation of first-person footage, it may have-and might even have altered my sense of time.

When we watch a first-person video, we interpret time differently than when we view footage filmed from a third-person perspective, suggeststwo decades of research on wearable cameras by Saadi Lahlou, director of the Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics. Time can appear to move more quickly in first-person footage. Such a finding is not without consequence when people are judging split-second decisions. For example, in the courtroom, a suspect might be judged by how quickly he complied with an officer's commands to put his hands up or get out of a car or to "stop resisting." By design, body cameras put us in the shoes of officers first, favoring their versions of events.

What an officer sees, or even fears (Darren Wilson said Michael Brown "looked like a demon," for example), is already valued above civilian testimony. By privileging an officer's vision, do body cameras represent a proper tool for reform? And if footage becomes ubiquitous in court, doesn't this give police more power-rather than hold them accountable? After all, a recent analysis by theDispatchinto use of force found law enforcement agencies nearly always sided with their officers.

There has been no definitive research on how juries interpret video footage from body cameras, making the courts largely unprepared, not to mention under-resourced, to handle the inevitable influx of footage. Franklin County Municipal courtrooms do not even have a way to display video footage in court.

In "Ways of Seeing,"author John Berger writes:"The way we see things is always affected by what we know and what we believe." A significant body of research in the social sciences supports this insight. Contrary to popular belief, cameras do lie. Consider the final play of the 2012 game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers-a shared catch by the defense and offense. Dubbed the "Fail Mary," the contested catch was seen by nearly 70,000 spectators and was then reviewed by countless officials, from multiple angles, in both slow motion and high-def. Officials awarded the Seahawks the touchdown, but after the game, the call was roundly criticized as wrong.

Such complexities aren't lost on Chief Jacobs. "Generally, everybody has a different view of any type of incident," she said at press conference following the fatal killing of Ty're King. "If the mayor was standing here, he might not be able to see what I have right here, but I could, you could, the mayor couldn't. Everybody has a different perspective on every single thing that plays out." Police videos can't overcome such limits; they can't miraculously unify disparate perspectives or erase our collective blindness in seeing what "really happened."

Body cameras won't document or end all instances of police misconduct or the use of excessive force by rogue officers. And in combative situations involving undercover officers-for example, the June 6 fatal shooting of Henry Green in Linden-we would be no closer to knowing what happened: who fired first and why, or whether the officers identified themselves first, since plainclothes officers in Columbus will be exempt from wearing cameras. Cameras also won't keep the city from being sued or absolve it from paying out millions in liabilities if an officer is caught on camera using excessive force. In the last decade, the city has paid $2.2 million to citizens in 37 excessive force cases, according to the city prosecutor's office.

Other cities, including Chicago, are also spending millions on body cameras, but doing so in tandem with significant new investments in retraining officers, including mandatory training on how officers can "de-escalate" conflicts instead of resorting to violence and force. Columbus police officers receive 40 hours of mandatory training a year, including 16 hours of "Defense Tactics Training," which according to George Speaks, deputy director of public safety, incorporates de-escalation tactics. Such training costs about $5 million a year.

But it still wasn't enough to stop officers from beating up an unarmed Ohio State student in 2013-a case later settled for $30,000; it didn't stop officers from using pepper spray against fans who had gathered on High Street to celebrate OSU's national championship win in January 2015; nor did it prevent a stray bullet from piercing the thigh of a 4-year-old girl when an officer-against procedure-shot his gun at a dog, an incident the city later settled for $780,000.

If Columbus has finite resources-and it does-why spend millions on an unproven technological fix? Might the untold millions we plan to spend on body cameras be better spenton massive new investments in officer retraining instead?