One of the more popular aspects of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is the provision that will mandate body cameras for all federal police officers and provide federal funding for state and local police forces who purchase them. We have seen so much body camera footage over the past few years that it is easy to assume that they are already ubiquitous, but as of 2020, only 45% of police departments used them. The George Floyd legislation could help with this; although the federal police officers that it directly affects only make up 20% of the 700,000 police officers nationwide, the funding the legislation provides should spur widespread adoption of these devices throughout the country. Still, it would be better if the legislation went further: Congress could, for example, withhold all federal funding from local police agencies that do not mandate body cameras within a specific time period; the George Floyd Act uses this tactic to force local police to ban chokeholds and forgo no-knock search warrants.
Although body camera footage has been integral to exposing some of the worst instances of police misconduct, and has helped to exonerate other police officers when their use of force is justified, its use is still controversial. A recent Washington Post article argues that without proper disclosure rules, body cameras could be ineffective in deterring police conduct. The Economist came to a similar conclusion after reviewing the varied disclosure rules of different states, from North Carolina and Louisiana, which (along with nine other states) require a court order to disclose body camera footage to Ohio, which makes the footage part of the pubic record. Swift and relatively easy disclosure policies are critical to enhance the effectiveness of body camera footage.
The Post article cites a meta-study which found that there was not yet conclusive evidence that wearing body cameras reduced the instances of police inappropriate use of force. However, the lack of conclusive evidence is likely because body cameras are still relatively new devices, and thus their effect on police conduct (and their use in trials and disciplinary proceedings) has not yet registered. And although we have become sadly accustomed to seeing video footage of police shootings, the vast majority of police lethal use of force cases did not have video footage–of the the 6,329 lethal police shootings since 2015 that are tracked in the Washington Post database, only 842 (13%) could be confirmed to have body cameras.
The meta-study did find a number of beneficial effects of body cameras, such as a lower rate of use-of-force complaints against police officers–this could mean that officers with body cameras actually use less force, or that those who interact with police are less likely to file baseless complaints against officers when the interaction is caught on video. Either effect would be an improvement. And body camera footage can be valuable for prosecutors in courtroom as well, especially in drunk-driving cases to prove the defendant’s inebriated state.
But perhaps the best argument in favor of universal use of body cameras is the increased transparency they provide. Without the existence of body cameras–and the swift disclosure of their footage–community members and the public at large will remain uncertain about whether the killing was justified, especially in today’s political climate in which many communities strongly distrust the police. This point is highlighted by a recent shooting in Minneapolis by federal agents in which there was no video evidence of the event. The police officers reported that the victim refused to comply with police orders and then pulled a handgun. Toshira Garraway, the founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, responded: “We no longer have faith in just believing the narratives that the police give us. They have forfeited their right to just tell us a story. We need facts, and the fact is any video footage.” The transparency that police body cameras create can not only provide evidence of police misconduct when it does occur, but also help to re-build legitimacy to police actions when they are justified.