Police badge cams, those small, portable video recorders, are the latest tool being deployed by police departments around the U.S. to improve crime-fighting and community trust.
They are valuable, but limited, tools for building safer neighborhoods, and more is needed to foster a positive relationship between police and the public.
The Los Angeles Police Department knows this well as it reviews a set of badge cam videos from a shooting in that city that left a homeless man dead. The badge cam videos recorded one of the officers shouting that the man had grabbed for his gun, according to news reports.
The advantages of badge cams are twofold.
First, they provide another piece of evidence for the kind of tragic case unfolding in Los Angeles. Studies find that witnesses, even victims of crime, are often inaccurate and subject to cognitive bias, including racial bias. Video cameras can provide an independent visual record of events unfolding in real time.
Also, as indicated by a study from Rialto, California, where complaints about police plummeted, badge cams seem to have a preventive effect. An officer wearing a badge cam is more likely to take a deep breath before saying something inappropriate or rude in a stressful situation and in turn is protected from bogus complaints.
Still, badge cams can only do so much in fostering goodwill between police and the public. Rogue officers can turn them off.
A badge cam also shows only the officer’s point of view, which is valuable, but that is only one perspective. The wider view from cellphone videos from Los Angeles, for instance, shows a somewhat chaotic scene with a number of officers, two suspects and many bystanders.
Camera perspective is like political perspective: The view from changes when you switch sides. This is why responsible police accountability activism, in which members of the public film police activity without interfering, is essential.
Citizens need to exercise their right to film police in public. The more perspectives, the better.
My research explores the way video must also be defined and explained. One of the most famous arrests caught on video was that of Rodney King, who was beaten by multiple officers in 1991. When defense attorneys showed the video in court in segments, explaining frame by frame what police were doing, the case ended with acquittals for all of the officers.
Trust between police departments and residents, therefore, requires more than video. Recent events in Ferguson, New York City and other parts of the U.S. have called attention to the wide disparities in the way African Americans and white Americans experience the justice system.
African American parents in Texas and across the U.S. lament the fact that they must have a “talk” with their teenagers that has nothing to do with the birds and the bees, but instead about how to respond during a police stop to avoid violence.
The hashtag trend #crimingwhilewhite, while not scientific, provides multiple anecdotes of the way white and black Americans experience policing very differently.
Badge cam video only has evidentiary value after something has happened. This is why in my classroom I spend many hours talking about stereotypes and how the brain processes visual information. Simply put, our brains respond differently more quickly, more emotionally to visuals, particularly fearful ones.
Even with their extensive training, police officers are humans who experience excitement, danger and fear, and they have occasion to face such emotions every day on the job.
As long as people with darker skin are stereotyped as dangerous, their appearance can spark fearful, or at worst, violent, responses.
Safer communities, therefore, require badge cams, public cameras, even-handed law enforcement and departments with diverse staffing. Video is great for a look at the evidence, but American justice is symbolized with a blindfold for good reason. Fairness is served only when everyone is “seen” the same way by the law.
Mary Bock is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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New op-ed on TP by @moodycollege prof: Police badge cams are a good start, but more is needed. http://t.co/MyA62Df854 #FergusonShooting
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) March 12, 2015