THE HUTCHINSON REPORT
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Within hours after Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies gunned down Dijon Kizzee, I and other Los Angeles civil rights leaders demanded that the Sheriff’s Department fully outfit all their officers with body cameras.
The county Board of Supervisors, which holds the department’s purse strings, announced that it would allocate millions to do just that. Now, while we pressed hard for the body cameras, we are under no illusion that they alone would have saved Kizzee. The Sheriff’s Department has long been hit with the charge that it is an out-of-control department, with rogue officers that make the law on the streets, and have absolutely no accountability and fear of punishment no matter how questionable and outrageous their wanton use of deadly force.
Still, the presumption is that at least with body cameras the officers that killed Kizzee would have known that their action in stopping him would have been documented on video. Therefore, that might have made them less inclined to be quick on the trigger knowing there was this kind of scrutiny.
Maybe yes, maybe no; there’s far more to the use of body cameras than just simply clamping one on the lapel or collar of an officer. There’s the matter of what a body camera can and can’t do, or even should be expected to do.
Body cameras are not the panacea that will end real or alleged police misconduct. Contrary to widespread belief, only a minuscule number of police-citizen encounters involve the use of force. According to surveys, only a small fraction of police calls involve felony stops or arrests.
Most of the encounters are garden variety stuff such as mediating disputes, providing referrals and assisting the injured, or ill, or accident investigation. In short, many of the encounters are quasi social service work. A body camera has little practical value there.
Its main function then is to document encounters that involve the potential use of force. That is to provide a neutral, objective picture of what went on during that encounter, to avoid the almost certain he said, she said about how and why a use of force tragedy happened. But that may not be the case.
In the state trial of the four Los Angeles police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in 1991, their defense attorneys skillfully pounded away that the video of the beating did not give the complete picture of what happened.
The attorney successfully argued that the camera didn’t show King’s alleged aggressive behavior toward the officers before the beating commenced and that the amount of force that they used was reasonable and necessary to subdue the supposedly combative King. The jury in the state trial bought the argument and all four officers were acquitted of most charges.
In the trial of other police officers since the King case who have been charged with the over use of force in which there was videotape evidence that appeared to show the officer did commit the acts, defense attorneys have also argued that the camera captured only part of the picture, not the whole picture.
A body camera has a similar hitch. It records only what’s in front of the officer. If the officer turns his body, is walking or running, and there are different angles to the encounter, it won’t give an accurate picture of the full encounter.
Whether Kizzee would not have been killed if the deputies had worn body cameras, and assuming the cameras were turned on, will never be known. However, what is known is that the wearing of body cameras may not be a fail-safe instrument for improving police work.
Studies have found that a body camera may serve as an impediment to some crime victims relating honestly and objectively what precipitated the assault, robbery or other violent act to them. This could skew the officer’s report and the investigation in the case.
Then there’s the question of will the use of body cameras make officers cross all their “T”s and dot all their “I” s in doing their job. The studies of police departments in which some officers wore body cameras and others didn’t have been mixed.
The officers that didn’t wear them made significantly more stops and frisk searches than the officers that wore them. But the officers that wore them made significantly more traffic stops and wrote more tickets. In both cases, the officers thought more carefully about their jobs, and what the consequences of their actions would be, whether they were being recorded or not,
There are several crucial tests in a controversial use of force encounter when the officer involved is wearing the body camera.
Did the camera show everything? How will the action be interpreted? And who will decide on the merit of the interpretation?
Those are questions the Sheriff’s Department so far hasn’t had to answer, since it has resisted the use of body cameras.
It took the horror of the Kizzee slaying to change that. Now that it has, we’ll see whether a camera will spare the next Kizzee from happening.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College”(Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.