THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Body cameras fail accountability test

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Many advocates for the use of body cameras by police officers were quick to credit them for outing the police officers who bludgeoned Tyre Nichols to death in Memphis last month. 

Without the body cameras and the relatively speedy release of the grotesque footage of the Nichols assault the five cops who beat him almost certainly would have walked free.

That is false hope. The blunt truth is that body cameras have been a colossal failure at curbing police violence. In fact, police killings hit a record high in 2022. 

And despite the widespread public impression that most departments now require body cameras on officers, the overwhelming majority of police departments nationwide don’t. Only seven states require their use.

Memphis’ use in Tennessee was an anomaly among examples of a police department promptly releasing body camera footage. Most police departments still don’t release photos instantly or on a timely basis.

The presumption has always been that when cops know they are being filmed and their actions are being documented cameras will make them far less inclined to be quick on the trigger or in the use of their fists, or hammer locks. This hasn’t been the case.

There is 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. Contrary to widespread belief, only a minuscule number of police-citizen encounters involve the use of force. Only a small fraction of police calls involve felony stops or arrests.

A body camera has little practical value here. 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” of 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.

They 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 they used was reasonable and necessary to subdue the supposedly combative King. The jury in the state trial bought that argument and the officers were acquitted of most charges.

Since the King case, in the trials of other police officers who have been charged with excessive force where there was videotape evidence that appeared to show the officer’s guilt, defense attorneys have also argued that the camera captured only part of the picture. 

A body camera has a similar hitch, in this case, technologically: It records only what’s in front of the officer. If the officer turns his body, is walking or running, and if there are different angles in the encounter, it won’t give an accurate picture of the full encounter.

There are a couple of other fail-safe hitches that render the use of body cameras questionable, if not almost worthless in reducing police violence. 

The Memphis officers who beat Nichols wore body cameras, had them turned on and knew they were being filmed. There was no effort by police officials to drag their feet on timely release, and certainly not to doctor the footage. 

Yet, the officers still acted with reckless and hideous brutality in assaulting Nichols. There had to be a level of confidence on their part that the footage alone of their wanton violence would not get them into hot water with the department’s higher-ups. There had to be the same level of confidence that the protective culture of policing and the ingrained belief among the public that police must be given the benefit of the doubt would shield them. 

Thankfully, in this case it didn’t. However, again, Memphis is the rare exception.

Prosecution of police officers who use excessive force is still extremely rare. That includes many of the officers who commit their questionable acts while outfitted with body cameras. 

Many police departments that require body cameras have not made clear how footage of the actions of the officers equipped with them will be used or when it will be released. That remains a discretionary judgment call police officials make when there is a controversial use-of-force encounter and the officer involved in the encounter is wearing the body camera. 

These questions come into play: Did it show all? Was there more? How will the action be interpreted? And who will decide on the merit of the interpretation? 

Police officials everywhere publicly pledge accountability and transparency. They certainly do not want the nightmare of having to endlessly defend their departments from the charges of excessive force. But from the evidence to date, body cameras have done little to stop that from happening.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.