We Still Need Body Cameras on Police

And three other steps to building trust between police and citizens — in Philly and elsewhere.

This Jan. 15, 2014 file photo a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body cameras during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles. Officers in one of every six departments around the country are now patrolling with these tiny cameras on their chests, lapels or sunglasses, and that number is growing. Most civil libertarians support their expansion despite concerns about the development of policies governing their use and their impact on privacy. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes,File)

In this January 15, 2014, file photo a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles. (AP | Damian Dovarganes,File)

It’s way too early to give up on putting body cameras on police.

When a New York grand jury decided last week not to indict the police officer who had been seen on video applying the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, a lot of observers decided it was time to declare the still-nascent body camera movement dead. After all, we saw everything we needed to see on video in Garner’s death, right? If it won’t work in his case, then what’s the point?

The body-camera backlash came just as the SEPTA Police and the Philadelphia Police both are in the midst of pilot programs to test cameras and specific policies regarding them. SEPTA Chief Thomas Nestel is unabashedly enthusiastic: “The police officers who are using them are completely sold,” he told me recently. Commissioner Charles Ramsey said  he wanted the cameras to help “build community trust.”

Only body cameras, we’re now being told, are no cure-all. That’s exactly right, but also wildly incomplete: Body cameras are not the silver bullet that will always provide the definitive account of every encounter between citizens and the police — because there is no silver bullet.

Building community trust will require, in large part, creating a sense that police officers will be held accountable when they step across the line. In addition to body cameras, this means:

• Taking the right to review police actions out of the hands of police and career prosecutors who work closely with police. In both the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the public massively doubted the results because it seemed prosecutors put a thumb on the scales in favor of police officers. Shootings and other potential discipline cases should be handled by an independent board; you’ll recall that earlier this year, the Committee of Seventy backed the call for an independent review board proposed by Councilman Curtis Jones, but so far that proposal has gone nowhere. It deserves a strong push after the new year.

• Changing the culture positively. Ramsey has apparently seen a draft report from the Department of Justice, commissioned to examine the department’s use of force. (This, along with Ramsey’s position co-chairing President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing, might make this the best moment for real reform of Philadelphia police in, well, forever.) Among the recommendations, apparently, will be the creation of new training requirements to help officers learn “ to de-escalate tense situations, increasing sensitivity to minorities, and more role-playing of scenarios that don’t involve the use of force.”

We can find new and better ways to punish police officers for misdeeds, after all, but a lot of heavy lifting might be avoided if we could start with the assumption that police officers really are here to protect and serve us. To that end, we might also:

• Find ways to limit the influence of the police union. We’ve long since observed that Fraternal Order of Police — in its efforts to spare cops the indignity of living in the city they serve and help them avoid discipline, and its general “no enemies in blue” attitude — gives every impression of actually hating Philadelphia.

It’s not just a problem here. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf last week noted that police unions across the U.S. routinely help bad cops get their jobs back and keep serving, even after they’ve been proven unfit for duty. It’s an issue that must be addressed, or we’re stuck.

Having said all of that, body cameras are still part of the solution. No, they can’t be as effective as we wish if grand juries and prosecutors look at videos and decide not to prosecutor a cop. But that’s a narrow view of how the cameras can be of use.

In Eric Garner’s case, for example, you had something that was missing from the debate after the Ferguson grand jury made its announcement: Conservative outrage. In the absence of video evidence, many conservatives presumed that Michael Brown’s death was justified. Add video, though, and those conservatives joined liberals in exclaiming against the injustice.

That’s progress. That’s something to build on. Right and left join together on few things; real change comes only if police reform becomes a bipartisan movement — and that it seems is mostly likely to happen if white conservatives can see the abuses with their own eyes.

Hopefully, the body cameras attached to Philly cops will capture nothing but well-behaved police treating the community with respect. Whether that’s true or not, we should be able to view the situation more sharply with the cameras than without. They’re not a silver bullet, but they will be a big help.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.