This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Eric Crosby
Articles investigating the efficiency and ethicality of police worn body cameras have become prominent in mainstream news outlets thanks to the substantial attention the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as the controversial grand jury decisions, received. Many of these post Ferguson articles address questions of privacy, accountability and effectiveness in the use of these relatively new technologies. They generally debate if the alleged positive outcomes of police-worn body cameras, mainly being more solid evidence for trials, and deterrence of illegal conduct on the part of police and citizens, outweigh the negative implications that have commonly been framed as a question of privacy and surveillance. While privacy and surveillance are important aspects of this issue, I would argue that most investigations by prominent news outlets miss the point. Police-worn body cameras will do nothing to eradicate institutionalized, systemic racism which frames young black men as expendable, adversarial, and at times, inhuman. The picture perfect articulation of this cultural and systemic problem comes with the grand jury’s failure to indict Eric Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo. I’ll admit this is not a particularly new insight, but here we have a case where the illegal use of force caused a death, was caught on videotape, and no justice was served. Some critics, such as The Guardian’s Vincent Warren, have been right to assert that the implementation of body cameras would be equivalent to treating a symptom when the real disease is institutionalized racism in police forces. However, even racism in police forces is only a symptom of deep cultural values and fears that are linked to white supremacy and stereotypes of aggressive animalistic black males. Part of the trouble with cases of white officers killing or assaulting young black men involves the fact that the fear these officers feel in the heat of the moment is likely genuine fear for their safety. The question this draws attention is why white officers feel so scared and unsafe in the presence of young black men. Could it be possible that the representations of blackness that dominate our culture and media from the moment we are socialized promote and nurture these fears? If this is the case, the situation becomes more complicated than simply declaring Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo to be racists. This would also help to explain why many outside observers, including those in grand juries, might have reciprocated these fears upon hearing the details of these two tragedies. Now, if we can realize that racism permeates much deeper in American and Western culture than simply labeling people racist and bad, or not racist and good, then would video taping police encounters truly contribute to the eradication of such racism? If body cameras will not effect the irradiation of racism, then I fear these new technologies are more likely to be used against the interests of marginalized groups and may even discourage victims of police violence to come forward for fear of being scrutinized by a system that has built fundamental distrust. MIT students likely are familiar with the alarm bells that go off in their heads when they hear of proposed technological solutions to very complicated issues, and the implementation of police-worn body cameras certainly fits the bill. It is unclear at what point authorities will be forced to question the true causes and motives behind the kind of racial discrimination that has resulted in so many deaths at the hands of police and citizens such as George Zimmerman, and it is unfortunate that it seems likely that similar tragedies will occur before this realization. The difference between future cases and those past is not likely to lie in their narratives or their deadly outcomes, but only in their documentation.