The case against body cameras

Amid everything going on, the City Council wants to give the cops even more money

A lot to unpack in this fun little graphic in a body cam company’s catalogue, eh?

After a long and ultimately fruitless debate on body cameras Tuesday, the City Council decided to do fuck-all nothing about it until its next meeting on September 8. 

But no action does not mean that nothing happened, know what I mean? There are a lot of interesting tidbits to consider as the Council moves forward with a too-little, too-late investment into policing that has proven over the past couple years to do nada diddly-squat zero to hold police officers to the higher standard of not murdering people in the street. The most interesting, to my mind, came to light after a well-placed question by City Councilor Khrystian King, who I would categorize as a supporter of body cameras in the abstract, but a skeptic about the implementation. 

Toward the end of the nearly six-hour meeting, he asked how far along the city is in identifying funding sources for the program, which may cost $11 million, though that number is a rough estimate at best. City Manager Ed Augustus told King that city staffers are looking for potential revenue sources, but that there are “a lot of competing things.” The one—and the only—competing thing he mentioned was a new $15 million ionization system to improve the air flow and air quality of city and school buildings, at a time when the money coming into City Hall is uncertain.   

“So I got my hands full trying to meet all these very expensive priorities,” Augustus said, “but if it’s the will of the Council I’m committed to trying to come back with a plan to make it happen.”

He also said the city could take out a loan, which means paying interest on top of a massive investment we shouldn’t be making in the first place, so no thank you. Check please!

Now, Augustus did not explicitly say that it’s either the ionization system or the body camera program, but it is certainly worth noting that it’s the only new investment he mentioned and the similarity of the cost is also interesting. Perhaps unwittingly—though Augustus does not do much unwittingly in my experience, I will give him that—he invoked the basic critique of the Defund WPD movement. Why are we investing so heavily in police when there are so many other more important budget priorities? Would you rather see cameras on cops or have your kids breathe clean air when they’re inevitably forced back into school buildings amid a pandemic that shows no sign of slowing? 

This is the basic folly of the idea that body cameras will solve any of the issues with American policing. You’re simply pumping more money into the department, giving cops a new toy, when the money would be better spent on anything else. The prospect of making the ever-increasing austerity we’re going to see over the next several years worse by giving cops cameras they’re just going to block or turn off while doing bad shit anyway is just ridiculous. It is a five-year-old technocratic neoliberal solution that has accomplished nothing at all, and we should demand better. 

Defund WPD, a group I profiled a few weeks back, said as much in a statement released ahead of the meeting. 

“For body camera programs to influence police behavior, participating police departments require a culture of transparency and a reliable internal system for accountability. The City’s shady history regarding transparency and accountability does not inspire confidence in this program. Compounding the issue, these cameras do not address policing’s systemic racism and the over-criminalization of Black, Brown, and economically disadvantaged communities.”

So let’s get into what I mean when I say that it is a five-year-old technocratic neoliberal solution, because that’s a lot of words and a lot to unpack.

So without further ado, let me present my case against body cameras. Well, one further ado: You can subscribe to this newsletter for free or for just a few bucks a month, and if you like what you’re reading and you think to yourself oh why don’t other reporters write this way that’s because they have bosses and I don’t. So please consider it. It will make me a happy baby boy and you get to be my little boss, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Body cameras wiggled their way into the Overton Window in 2014 after Ferguson and the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. The idea came into vogue among liberal media elite and the Obama Administration pumped $23 million in federal grants to help departments purchase them. By 2016, nearly half of all departments in the country had adopted some form of body camera program, though they vary widely under America’s insane and decentralized policing system. The basic idea, as I’m sure we all remember, was that cops on camera would behave better than cops sans-camera. In the years to come, cops would prove again and again that a camera is no match for the deep layers of immunity and protection afforded by their respective departments and the state in general and the systems of white supremacy which they swear to uphold. Yes, I am talking about The Law when I say systems of white supremacy. Obedience to law is liberty, lol. Tell that to the 2.2 million slaves I mean prisoners in this country, the disproportionate majority of whom are people of color for some completely and totally unexplainable reason that has nothing to do with America being a uniquely racist country.

Let’s take a look at this 2017 study that measured the impact of body cameras among over 2,000 Washington D.C. police officers. The result study found that body cameras had “no detectable effect on the outcome in question” when it came to use of force, civilian complaints or officer discretion. A 2016 composite of previous studies found just the same. An average of 10 trials found no significant change in use of force among officers. Just a few years in and academic research was already proving that body cameras don’t do a whole lot. This was obviously and horrendously borne out in the case of George Floyd. Every officer involved in that brutal killing had a body camera on and active. The cameras didn’t stop Derek Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. The cameras didn’t compel the other officers to take Chauvin’s knee off Floyd’s neck.

I like this kicker quote from Louise Matsakis’ article in Wired on the matter.

While Senate Republicans have put forward proposals for reform that would expand the use of body cameras, others are questioning whether the technology is really worth it, particularly if cameras don’t stop brutality. “At a moment when we’re cutting school funding, when we’re cutting forms of public health funding in the middle of a pandemic, the idea of spending millions to preserve body cam footage that’s often hidden from the public seems like a real waste to me,” says Cahn.

My thoughts exactly.

So body cameras have proven time and again to be far less than the technocratic silver bullet centrists and increasingly right wingers believe them to be. But there are other issues with them as well. A big issue, which would be especially big in Worcester, is actually accessing the footage. Across the country, public access to body camera footage has already proven to be a problem. 

A website called EqualFuture reviewed the 105 police killings in 2017 caught on body camera footage (out of nearly 1,000 police killings total that year, by the way). Police departments did not make the footage public in 40 of those cases. In the other 65, it took anywhere from weeks to more than a month for most of the footage to be released.

The Worcester Police Department does not have a reputation for transparency, to say the least. The department and City Hall have been battling a lawsuit filed by the Telegram and Gazette for two whole years to prevent the paper from accessing basic disciplinary records and complaint histories against Worcester police officers. Do you really in your heart of hearts think that this very same police department will readily give up body camera footage of an officer caught being a baddie? Highly doubtful. That we would invest $11 million, more or less, of public money into a tool that the police department will likely fight tooth and nail to hide from public accountability… it enters a realm of lunacy. 

And one more point if you’ll allow me, though I know this post is going long: Facial recognition. Sure, these cameras are pitched to us as a way to hold police to account, but the police officers wear them. They face outward. They can be easily paired with facial recognition technology, a sexy new tool of state oppression wiggling its way into law enforcement like a tapeworm. In March, OneZero found that the body camera manufacturer Wolfcom, which has sold cameras to more than 1,500 departments, is building live facial recognition into its newest models. 

“With Realtime Facial Recognition, WOLFCOM hopes to give our friends in Law Enforcement tools that will help them identify if the person they are talking to is a wanted suspect, a missing child or adult, or a person of interest,” Wolfcom founder Peter Austin Onruang wrote in a May 14, 2019, email to the Noble Police Department in Oklahoma.

The email also contained a link to a video demonstration of facial recognition already running on a body camera. In the video, three people stand side by side. As they enter the body camera’s field of vision, a nearby computer monitor shows a graphic over the live video, guessing their age, gender, and facial expression and announcing if they are a missing person, have an outstanding warrant, or are wanted for felony assault.

That should scare the crap out of you. At a time when the powers that be are doing all they can to categorize left-wing activists as dissidents or worse, and there are unaccountable and unmarked federal agents roaming the streets scooping people up and taking them god knows where, do you want Worcester police officers to have facial recognition technology? I don’t. Hard pass. 

While Wolfcom is so far the only body camera manufacturer found to be using such technology (and others have denounced it) it’s worth noting that the push for body cameras in Worcester has not yet gone “out to bid,” meaning they haven’t found a company they wish to buy the cameras from. Wolfcom is one of the big ones, and it could very well end up being them.

This is all to say it would be better to stuff that $11 million into a briefcase with a brick or two for good measure and throw it into Lake Quinsigamond. To pursue this idea now, after so much has been written about its utter lack of efficacy, is worse than a cop-out. It’s a big step backwards. 

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In this post I didn’t mention anything about townies being shitty online, which is unusual for me. So let’s throw in one here for good measure. On a Facebook post earlier this week, Michael Bartosiewics, the owner of Bushel ‘N Peck, posted this. 

Sucking cock!

After people were roasting him online and promising to boycott his business, he apologized. “It was a lapse of judgement and in extremely poor taste,” he said. I’ll say. I’m no Kamala fan, not in the least, but like c’mon dude. Just don’t post stuff like that. It’s easy to not be a sexist little weirdo and if it’s really that hard not to be, just do it in the privacy of your own home. 

I’ll close with some good news. Organizers behind the Black Lives Matter mural on Major Taylor Boulevard are putting on an art show featuring the work of the artists involved at the ArtsWorcester space on Portland Street. The exhibit is called “Beyond the Paint” and it opens on Aug. 14. Hey, that’s today! Go check it out!

‘Till next time, my little news piggies!