Here’s Why Cameras Can’t Fix What’s Broken in Ferguson

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The latest news from the police force in Ferguson, Missouri is focused heavily on new body cameras that have been donated for police use. Fifty cameras were given by a private company donation, with an offer to train officers in their use — an offer the force is taking them up on. Prior to that, another company had donated three, and the department had purchased three; clearly the idea had gained some momentum after the initial push.

Chief of Police Tom Jackson, who has taken heavy fire for his reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, told CBS that the cameras would have proven very useful had they been present during the shooting. They could have told investigators what had taken place leading up to the altercation, whether Brown had been aggressive or fleeing, and issues such as that.

As it is, the investigation, regardless of its outcome, is likely to spark further controversy. Either the officer in question — Darren Wilson — will be found guilty of having shot an unarmed man without just cause, in which case the reasons for distrust and bad relations between civilians and police will be confirmed and anger will result, or he’ll be found innocent.

If he’s found innocent, many will protest, contest the findings, and likely be angered by what they see as an unfair or biased trial. This being the logical result of distrust for authority, which is at the root of the problem in St. Louis County. The new cameras are both a blessing and a major concern.

How Cameras Could Help

Many are heavily in favor of the cameras, and for good reason. They’re both a weapon for every day citizens, and a shield for police officers — if they’re used correctly. One example given by James Brooks, a Policy Chief Deputy in Laurel, Maryland to CBS was that camera footage could be used in court to solidify cases against criminal behavior. “So now you are going down the road, you see a car maybe weaving back and forth, you can turn your camera on and start to capture that evidence that you may want to present for a DUI case in court,” said Brooks.

Of course, the benefits and dangers are summarized rather perfectly in that example. Yes, it can be used to show activity as it happened very accurately, rather than just by word of mouth. However, it also depends on the police officer to switch the camera on, and if police are abusing authority, which is the concern in Ferguson, they are hardly likely to pause and turn a recording device on while they do so. Yet it does place a certain responsibility on the officer, and demand answers as to why there isn’t footage for future interactions if that be the case. It also allows new tools for keeping officers in check, and gives those higher in command increased accountability for their officers’ actions.

“This is something that’s changing the face of law enforcement. A picture’s worth a thousand words and video, many more … video, from the perspective of the officer, is going to be an invaluable tool in determining why an officer acted the way he or she did — and whether he or she acted appropriately,” said the American Civil Liberty Union representative Peter Bibring, according to CBS. The ACLU’s stance is particularly salient given its departure from their usual, more critical position on public surveillance. For example, police drone surveillance has been named a major concern by the ACLU — but they stand in support of these new body cameras. 

Why Camera Dependence Is Scary

The body cameras could be an excellent tools for police and civilians alike. In Ferguson, where police and civilian trust issues mean a third neutral party — like a camera — would come in handy, these cameras could help ease the transition out of crisis back into everyday life. But the need for cameras does not solve the main issues in Ferguson, and it would be a mistake to think that they do.

If anything, they only increase the awareness that confidence in the police is at a low, and not just public confidence; institutional flaws in training effectiveness and hiring have become very clear. The racial make-up of the police force in Ferguson has been repeatedly listed as a concern, but it’s a problem that is at least simple to understand. The demographic shift in Ferguson’s population — from affluent white suburbia to a majority African American with many below the poverty line — occurred very rapidly. So rapidly that the power structure in law enforcement is rather behind the times — and that absolutely needs to be rectified.

But training is also another major problem. Looking at the riots in Ferguson and police response to the crisis, it’s clear that controlling civilians isn’t the only issue the department is having. They aren’t controlling their officers, and their officers aren’t controlling themselves. Yes, it’s only human to react to insults and aggression, but verbal abuse should not lead to escalation — that’s what police training is for. Unfortunately, the training in Ferguson doesn’t seem to be effective.

Daily life now is doing things like trying to get the body camera, meeting with various local and national leaders to try to set up various types of training, not just for us but for the region. We do the racial profiling training and the cultural diversity stuff, but it’s not enough. Obviously, it’s not enough,” said Chief Jackson to The Huffington Post. “So what we want to do is get more of the training where officers, in the academy especially, can get a direct feel for what it’s like to be a young black male with the police behind them, you know, what it feels like. Try to get some of those firsthand stories.”

Another more obvious solution might be to diversify the police force. A study from Ronald Weitzer in the Journal of Criminal Justice looked at “Race and citizen assessments of police officers” in which he went into advantages of racial diversity on the police force. He stated that, “There is considerable support for a policy of deploying racially integrated teams of officers in black neighborhoods” based on case studies and interviews that had been taken.

Yes, Jackson has a “whole laundry list of training that’s really beneficial to get at this problem so that we can all live together peacefully,” and yes, additional, better training is certainly needed in the Ferguson police force. However, that’s not the thing that’s needed — and equipping badly trained officers with cameras is also not the only solution. A trio of solutions seems in order: cameras, improved deescalation and racial sensitivity training, and a diversified police force. By that I do not simply mean “Ferguson needs more black cops,” although there is obviously an argument for that. I mean that the power structure is an old one, one constructed using the building blocks available at a very different time in Ferguson’s history, and a diversity of attitudes, viewpoints, socio-economic groups, genders, etc. all have a role in improving law enforcement.

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