Cameras were supposed to prevent this. Yet even though the fatal takedown of Eric Garner by New York City police officers was captured in crystal-clear video, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer involved.
After the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the clarion call in law enforcement was for more transparency. President Barack Obama pledged $263 million to equip 50,000 cops with body cameras capable of video, audio and ultimately saving that footage for later review. But, with a lack of indictment after the Garner killing, the call for cameras on police appeared to melt into a sea of despair, hopelessness and outrage.
Still, experts say body cameras are coming, even if they're not the catch-all solution that both police and their critics have hoped for.
“One incident doesn’t necessarily change anything," said Lindsay Miller, a senior research associate at the Police Executive Forum in Washington and a co-author of a 2014 report on body cameras. "I don’t think anyone’s saying cameras are going to be a cure-all, but they are helping law enforcement agencies resolve issues."
Major cities throughout the U.S. are preparing to roll out pilot body camera programs over the next month. Those that do, though, have already made changes to department protocol based on knowledge they wouldn’t have had without the cameras. Miller cited an Arizona police department that received a complaint from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People about an officer and revisited footage that officer recorded before ultimately dismissing him.
“We need to manage the expectations of dealing with cameras,” she added.
Others are more skeptical. Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor who now lectures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, asserted that body cameras are little more than a Band-Aid for a culture that’s inherently flawed.
“The root of this issue is that we have a brutal criminal justice system and no one wants to acknowledge it,” he said. “The Garner case isn’t a shock. It’s the product of the same system that we set up.”
The former prosecutor characterized the widespread use of body cameras as an example of politicians and the public as a whole shifting accountability onto individual patrol officers, who rank on the lowest rung of the law enforcement totem pole. By introducing body cameras, he said, lawmakers can criticize individual instances of brutality while glossing over more difficult issues like poverty, racism and a lack of community policing.
“The police are on the front issue of the issue, police are our surrogates,” O’Donnell went on. “They have weapons, they have the power to coerce and that’s the system. Own the system.”