In this month’s issue, we draw on decades of Reason journalism about policing and criminal justice to make practical suggestions about how to use the momentum of this summer’s tumultuous protests productively. Check out Damon Root on abolishing qualified immunity, Peter Suderman on busting the police unions, Jacob Sullum on ending the war on drugs, Sally Satel on rethinking crisis response, Zuri Davis on restricting asset forfeiture, C.J. Ciaramella on regulating use of force, Jonathan Blanks on stopping overpolicing, Stephen Davies on defunding the police, and Nick Gillespie interviewing former Reasoner Radley Balko on police militarization.
“We pay attention when a sports hero gets roughed up or when a video camera films a beating. What happens during the thousands of routine interactions between the police and average folks?”
There’s an emerging consensus within the broad police reform movement in the United States that the proliferation of body-worn police cameras—the most significant legacy of the last round of protests against police violence—has been more or less a failed experiment. The complaints about violent, high-handed police conduct that sent protestors into the streets in 2015 had largely not been remedied by the end of 2019, although the number of officers wearing cameras skyrocketed during the same period.
Studies backed up what residents of overpoliced communities experienced anecdotally: Cops wearing expensive new cameras weren’t any less violent, on the whole, than they had been before. The Axon camera clipped to Derek Chauvin’s chest certainly didn’t stop him from choking George Floyd to death in Minneapolis this summer.
So today, as the loudest voices are calling for a burn-it-all-and-start-over approach to criminal justice, it’s tough to make the case that body cams are still a crucial part of the solution to police misconduct. But giving up on making cops record themselves would be a mistake for reform advocates.
Police reform measures can be grouped into two broad categories: those that aim to prevent misconduct on the front end and those that aim to ensure accountability when it does occur. Of course, there’s some circularity there—we hope that more accountability will mean less misconduct to begin with. But writing off body cameras as a failed policy makes sense only if you assume their purpose is preventive.
It’s understandable to think this way. After all, the huge expenditures required to implement body-cam programs were largely sold to taxpayers with the very promise that’s been shown false—that knowing they were on camera would make officers behave better.
But the real value of cameras comes on the back end. Even if they don’t stop misbehavior in the first place, cameras change the accountability playing field in important ways. The fact that those most likely to suffer from misconduct are often unreliable witnesses or unsympathetic victims—criminal suspects, homeless people, people with mental illnesses, and so on—has long stymied even good-faith efforts to hold police officers accountable for mistreating members of the public. When allegations come down to a credibility contest, judges, juries, police commanders, and others are often unwilling to credit the word of such victims over that of an officer who denies the wrongdoing.
Preserving the tech is important because legal changes alone can’t solve this problem. Even ending qualified immunity—a kind of holy grail for police accountability advocates—won’t help much if civil rights plaintiffs have no objective evidence to refute an officer’s self-serving account of his actions.
Right now, the policy infrastructure around police cameras is largely built on the assumption that their main use is deterrence. Since that model has failed, it’s time to reimagine the cameras as tools to maximize transparency and accountability.
To do this, public access to footage should be radically expanded. Governments should insist, as a condition of continued funding for camera programs, that police release footage on demand to, at minimum, the people it depicts. At present, many states don’t require police departments to release body camera footage in response to freedom of information requests, even when legitimate interests such as privacy and witness safety aren’t implicated. (I learned this the hard way back in 2018 when, as a Reason intern, I took a suburban Virginia police department to court over its denial of my request for footage of an alleged excessive force incident—and lost.) Such restrictions serve no legitimate purpose when the people depicted in the footage have consented to its release, and they hamper both watchdog efforts and academic research.
The agencies that already exist to hold police officers accountable for their actions should also be more aggressive about preemptively reviewing body cam footage for misconduct. Internal affairs departments, civilian review boards, and prosecutors’ offices should have unrestricted access to footage, and these entities should conduct regular audits for compliance with recording policies and other departmental rules, such as use-of-force regulations and requirements to behave courteously. Local governments could also require that departments conduct random audits of their own. Some departments already do this, but several—including problem departments like those in Ferguson, Missouri, and Mesa, Arizona—either don’t bother or explicitly forbid the practice.
For any of this to work, departments must require officers to keep the cameras on and unobstructed any time they’re interacting with a member of the public. They also need to get serious about enforcing those policies. Current penalties for violations are often weak or nonexistent. The handful of “reform” or “progressive” prosecutors who’ve been elected lately, in part on promises of greater police accountability, could help by systematically declining to prosecute people arrested by officers who were supposed to be recording but weren’t.
Body cams make it possible for watchdogs and police leadership to address officer misconduct. But there’s a more basic reason to keep pushing for more cameras and greater access to footage. True transparency and freedom of information mean we don’t need a special reason to find out what the government is up to. The police work for all of us. We have every right to know what they’re doing in our names.