One of the great things about being from NYC is that we’re too street smart to easily fall for a scam. For those who are perhaps a bit too trusting, focus on a policy that promotes the infomercial-like idea that we can solve one of the country’s most complex political issues, police brutality, with a gadget.
Police-worn body cameras won’t save us from police abuse. In fact, they could be used by cops to criminalize communities of color and expand surveillance — stretching police power instead of providing a check on it. The NYPD has suggested as much, with a spokeswoman saying the department’s pilot camera program, which began April 27, will “shed light” on criminal cases. However, body cams will primarily help cops — not the public.
Putting aside arguments that the cameras could provide evidence of misconduct, has anyone considered that what is lacking in holding cops accountable is not more evidence? Plenty of amateur video shows officers run amok, including in the NYPD. In some cases, like the chokehold-related death of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014, cops escaped punishment and continue to receive paychecks. That’s even with video of what the police did, including the use of a banned chokehold.
No, the problem is a lack of will among elected leaders to stand up and punish rogue cops. We don’t have an evidence problem. And it’s already next-to-impossible for the public to access video from NYC- and NYPD-controlled surveillance cameras around the city. Body cams will be more of the same. Some may even one day have facial recognition technology — an Orwellian turn for NYC.
In fact, the rules for the pilot program at the NYPD — which already enjoys an expansive surveillance apparatus — are laughable. For instance, the guidelines do not require cops to record low-level interactions with the public, but grant officers access to their videos before they make statements or write reports, in some cases. The solution isn’t better rules, as liberal reform-minded activists and lawyers naively advocate. Instead, we should answer with a big fat NO to body cams. The NYPD has embraced the body cams, but it isn’t because they will hold police accountable.
We should expand the culture of filming police by the public and draw back, not enhance, the resources we make available to a police department. A better way would be to divert money for police gadgets to housing, schools or even a multimedia program to enable young people to film, document and perhaps even report on criminal justice issues.
That’s not a quick fix, but it would be an approach based on accountability in communities where residents are being affected.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.