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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Body cameras. What are they good for?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds up a body camera that the New York Police Department will begin using during a press conference on December 3, 2014 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

Early Tuesday morning, two police officers responded to a 911 call in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about a man in a red shirt who may have been threatening people.

Soon, the man, who we now know is Alton Sterling, was dead. Shot at apparently point-blank range multiple times by at least one of the officers in an incident horrifically captured by a bystander’s camera.

Sterling’s name joins the list of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and too many others who died when police used deadly force.

The Justice Department quickly launched an investigation into the case, and more details will emerge.

A second, graphic video released Wednesday afternoon by some news outlets appears to show one officer taking a gun out of Sterling's pocket as Sterling's blood pooled on the floor. It seems this would be a very different story, and likely not one that drew national attention, if there was no video. Simply: armed suspect shot by police.

Wednesday night, a Minnesota man named Philando Castile was fatally shot by police. Cellphone video of that incident, shockingly close on the heels of Sterling's death, circulated quickly. 

In many recent police shootings, video left powerful evidence of a pervasive national problem — the drumbeat of unarmed civilians, often young black and brown men, killed by police. More than 500 this year, according to counts from The Guardian and The Washington Post.

An (imperfect) tool
Videos from body and dashboard cameras, often useful in more suburban areas, led to charges against the officers involved in the deaths of Laquan McDonald in Chicago and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. As reformers and police departments search for ways to improve community-police relations, body cameras offer a tangible, attainable solution.

The deployment of body cams unites activists from different sides of the political spectrum. Campaign Zero, the reform group founded by Black Lives Matter activists, supports cameras and videotaping police officers. Some police chiefs have gone on record for body cameras, including NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. President Barack Obama’s criminal justice reform program strongly offered funding to local departments to start camera programs.

Supporters hope the cameras can prevent the escalation of police-civilian interactions and record wrongdoing when necessary. In theory they can exonerate police officers when wrongfully accused and support victims of police misconduct.

The officers in Baton Rouge wore body cameras, too. But the footage may not offer any further clarity. The cameras were “dislodged,” a Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman told reporters on Wednesday.

This underscores one issue with body cameras. Even when they work well they don’t necessarily give a clear view of the incident. And cameras don’t necessarily change the culture of aggression that leads to altercations between police and the public.

One 2014 study found that usage by the Rialto police department in California had a positive effect, reducing use-of-force and increasing police legitimacy. A more recent University of Cambridge study found that cameras actually increased assaults against officers, and use-of-force by officers stayed constant. The study posited that the results could have been affected by policies governing camera usage, such as when during an encounter the cameras were turned on — indicating that underlying policies are as important as the cameras.

One small step
In NYC, police body cameras have been under consideration for years — a federal judge ordered the NYPD to test the cameras as part of her 2013 ruling that found the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional.

In the fall of 2014, the NYPD started a small pilot program with 54 cameras. A larger pilot is scheduled to begin this fall with 1,000 cameras spread out over 20 commands.

The police department is now conducting a survey asking for public input on body camera policy. New Yorkers can go here to register concerns and suggestions about privacy issues and usage — nearly 7,000 did so by Wednesday, according to Barry Friedman of NYU Law’s Policing Project, which is conducting the survey.

Friedman says body cameras could help boost police legitimacy but certainly are no “fix-all.”

Friedman says many police department reforms are done on the “back end,” creating inspector generals or submitting to court monitors. Dealing with problems, not necessarily being pro-active. “Body cameras is more of that.” He says front-end reform is what the NYPD is doing with the survey — eliciting public input for police policy.

It’s a good intention, but also a reminder that body cameras are just a tool — one to be developed and closely watched. They might shine a light but they aren’t the be-all end-all for better relations.

In the meantime, cameras of all kinds in Baton Rouge and elsewhere continue to capture video that is difficult to watch, and infuriating in its repetition.

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