Law enforcement departments across the country have adopted body cameras for officers in recent years, responding to public outcry over killings of unarmed suspects by police. But does the video record captured by body cameras actually improve relations between police and the communities in which they serve? 

At a September 21 conference sponsored by NYU Law’s Policing Project, the opening panel—which included Tucson police chief Chris Magnus; Monique Dixon, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund deputy director of policy and senior counsel; Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a digital technology research and advocacy organization; and Washington Postnational correspondent Wesley Lowery, among others—probed the costs and benefits of body cameras. 

Watch video of the discussion:

The discussion, moderated by Policing Project director and Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law Barry Friedman, highlighted one of the Policing Project’s key aims, studying and evaluating best practices in policing. Other panels focused on using social science to measure the efficacy of traffic stops as a policing tactic and on employing cost-benefit analysis in policing decisions.

Selected remarks:

Chris Magnus: “We heard, for example, following Ferguson that body cameras were going to be an important step in building or rebuilding trust with the community.… I can tell you that in my experience, technology of any kind but in particular body cameras do not build trust. Relationships build trust.” 

Monique Dixon: “For us in the civil rights community, it's important to have video footage in order to be evidence of police conduct we have experienced in our communities for decades. And it offers an opportunity for us to present this evidence, so that courts of law and courts of public opinion understand the experiences of people in communities of color. Sadly though, while it does expose what has happened, it does not always result in accountability, as we have seen in the case of Eric Garner, whose death was caught on video.” 

Harlan Yu: “I think in many places…we'll talk about transparency and accountability, but ultimately what happens—especially when the public can't even get footage after critical incidents, or there aren't any policies in place that mandate that departments release footage after critical incidents—what we're really getting are investigatory tools and surveillance tools.” 

Wesley Lowery: "The cameras are tools, and the tools can work in one of two directions, right? The presence of the video and the presence of the camera opens the idea of a promise we might be able to see what happened. But in a jurisdiction or an incident in which that video is then either concealed or kept from the public, it can in fact only double down on a distrust or mistrust.”

Posted November 21, 2018