Body Cameras Won’t Solve Larger Problems with D.C. Police

Nov 3, 2017 · 5 min read

By Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, Executive Director, ACLU-DC
NOVEMBER 3, 2017 | 4:45 PM

Body cameras on police are everywhere: 95 percent of large cities’ police forces are using them, with encouragement (and funding) from the Trump administration. They’ve been touted as a singular fix that will bring accountability and transparency to police departments nationwide, and deliver justice to families who have suffered from incidents of police violence by exposing and weeding out bad cops.

So the recent news that a study conducted by the Lab@DC found the presence of body-worn cameras (BWC) on officers had no statistical effect on policing in D.C. surprised many, including Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham. He told NPR: “I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior.”

While body cameras can bring transparency and accountability to officers’ actions, they certainly aren’t a panacea for the myriad problems that plague MPD. From civilian complaints, to discussions with community members, to our own lawsuits against MPD, ACLU-DC well knows MPD officers have stopped, harassed, and used excessive force with impunity. Changing officer behavior isn’t as easy as pressing the “On” button.

Researchers equipped 1,100 officers with BWCs and maintained a control group of 1,100 officers without cameras. The study focused on four main areas: use of force, civilian complaints, police activity (such as arrests, ticketing, etc.), and judicial outcomes. And while the study found no statistical difference in these outcomes between officers with body cameras and those without, Newsham defended the BWC program to the New York Times:

Chief Newsham said the cameras had a number of benefits that could not be easily measured: more accurate investigations, better training and at least one case in which the footage exonerated an officer accused of shooting an unarmed suspect (who was indeed armed).

Yet it was also after the roll-out of BWCs in September 2016 that MPD officer Brian Trainer shot Terrence Sterling, an unarmed black man, in the back. Trainer was wearing a BWC, but he only turned it on after he’d shot Sterling. And Trainer’s failure was not an isolated misstep: the recently released Office of Police Complaints annual report revealed: “In FY17, at least one officer failed to properly use their BWC in 34% of the cases OPC investigated by: (1) turning it on late, (2) turning it off early, (3) not turning it on at all, (4) not notifying the subject that they were being recorded, or, (5) the camera was obstructed.” So much for Newsham’s claim that BWCs provide for “more accurate investigations.”

From the Office of Police Complaints’ 2017 Annual Report

Attention surrounding Trainer’s failure to turn his camera on earlier has led to more efforts to remind officers to do so, but that doesn’t help Sterling’s family, which still lacks details about the circumstances that led to his death. As Black Lives Matter DC Core Organizer and KeepDC4Me founder April Goggans told NBC: “Whether or not you have a video or not doesn’t bring people back. It doesn’t stop them from dying.”

Newsham further claimed the implementation of BWCs make for a police force that is “legitimate and trusted.” Unfortunately, the practices MPD employs on the ground engender neither trust nor legitimacy from the community it serves. Racist MPD T-shirts, “jump-outs” by the Gun Recovery Unit, and an abusive stop-and-frisk of a local ward representative have strained relations already fraught with fear and distrust.

In addition, body cameras do little to restore community trust when that community is shown repeatedly that despite video-recorded evidence of police wrongdoing, officers can continue to abuse their power with little consequence. This has led to numerous, avoidable interactions that have resulted in people being arrested, charged, or in some cases, killed.

The appearance of impunity for police misconduct is further driven home when prosecutors fail to bring criminal charges against officers like Trainer and several other officers involved in police shooting deaths across the country. But it’s even worse in D.C., where the U.S. Attorney hasn’t brought a single criminal charge against an MPD officer for using lethal force. This fact astonished Michael Bromwich, who authored a 2016 report on use-of-force incidents. “I was surprised that there had never been one. I thought zero was a low number. If I had heard there was one or two, I would have expected that,” Bromwich told the Washington Post. “But we’re talking none.”

And where the U.S. Attorney has failed, the MPD’s internal mechanisms have also failed to deliver any accountability. The OPC reported that “FY17 saw an unprecedented increase in the number of complaints received,” but of 588 investigations spurred by complaints, only nine led to discipline, and none led to suspensions.

As Stop Police Terror Project DC Core Organizer Eugene Puryear tells NBC: “What we have is a lack of ability of police officers to feel any consequences.” And we shouldn’t expect this to change in D.C. while the U.S. Attorney’s office is taking its lead from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Last fall, the ACLU-DC participated in a forum with the Lab@DC and MPD officials to discuss the study. I urged MPD to consult community members most affected by overpolicing and excessive force issues, and I suggested police meet with local racial justice organizations such as Stop Police Terror DC, Black Lives Matter DC, and the Movement for Black Lives. That never happened. Perhaps their logic followed Newsham’s, that the presence of the cameras themselves will fix the problems. But it’s proven that communities of color exist under more surveillance than white communities, making this additional layer of scrutiny especially disturbing.

Since December, every uniformed patrol officer has had a body-worn camera. They are now a part of life in D.C., for both cops and community members. It’s time MPD acknowledged that serious problems exist in how it polices the community its mission is to protect and serve, and not try to hide the problem with Band-aids in the form of body cameras. Trust is not rebuilt when there are no consequences for wrongdoing. It simply becomes a highlight reel of ignored behaviors.

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