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BTL 2022

Body cameras do not fix the problem of police legitimacy

Body-worn cameras are not the panacea to police misconduct that their purveyors and supporters claim them to be

USA PoliticsHuman Rights

Body camera worn by an officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Ryan Johnson/Wikimedia Commons.

On May 27, Leonna Hale, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot multiple times and seriously wounded by Kansas City Police. A bystander video of the aftermath of the shooting quickly went viral, sparking immediate outrage. A witness statement initially suggested that Hale was both pregnant and unarmed, accounts that have since been contested.

A local pastor, Reverend Timothy Hayes, told the Kansas City Star that Hale is not pregnant, contradicting the witness statement. However, there remains disagreement over whether Hale was armed during the encounter with police, who were wearing body-worn cameras.

Hale herself has denied having a weapon at the time of the encounter but has nevertheless been charged with unlawful use of a firearm and possession of a weapon.

There have been calls, including by Quinton Lucas, the Kansas City mayor, to release body camera footage of the shooting to clarify things including whether Hale was in possession of a handgun and that she allegedly pointed the weapon at police. As proof that Hale was armed, the Jackson County prosecutor released a still image taken from police body camera footage during the encounter. The image appears to show Hale with a handgun. Upon release of the image, Mayor Lucas proclaimed, “the truth has been shared.”

The image, however, has been met with skepticism with unsubstantiated accusations that authorities had photoshopped a gun in Hale’s hand. Pastor Hayes provided the following commentary on the image: “It is missing an ankle clear as day,” continuing, “The leg and the shoe is not connected. Her hand is faded inside of a fence, if you look in detail.”

The Jackson County prosecutor has referred to such assertions as “false narratives.” The Kansas City Missouri Fraternal Order of Police President Brad Lemon has called claims that Hale was unarmed “garbage” calling the entire story “a complete lie” and has antagonized those continuing to question the image: “Keep stirring the pot […] keep pushing the big lie.”

A few things are worth highlighting as the investigation continues. The public’s questioning of Hale’s encounter with police including the validity of the circulated image is totally understandable. And, relatedly, body-worn cameras do not fix the problem of police legitimacy.

The released image of Hale with a gun may very well be what it appears to be. However, the questions concerning the image are understandable when contextualized in the history of blatant police lies to cover up their misdeeds—including murder—and then gaslighting the public about it. This is especially the case when it comes to police interactions with racialized communities. Police lying is and remains a systemic issue. There is a plethora of examples, far too many to recount here. We can consider a few recent examples to illustrate the point.

As perhaps the most notorious example in recent memory, consider the initial statement released by the Minneapolis Police indicating that George Floyd’s death was a result of a “medical incident.” A grotesque lie. And another, in the hours following the police choking death of Eric Garner in New York City, an internal document prepared for police commanders made no mention of any officer contact with Garner’s neck, another ghoulish distortion. Police have also been found to lie in court under oath. The practice even has its own name, “testilying.” Or consider the police practice of planting guns on unarmed citizens to justify police violence, a phenomenon referred as a “drop gun.”

It is therefore not necessarily out of the realm of possibility for the public to consider the potential of a photoshopped gun in Hale’s hand as a kind of digital drop gun. It probably is not, but it could be—and that is precisely the point. Body-worn camera footage of Hale’s encounter with police may provide the answer. Even still, consider that body camera footage has even captured police fabricating evidence by planting drugs on a suspect. Body-worn cameras are not the panacea to police misconduct that their purveyors and supporters claim them to be.

As of April 2021, approximately 900 Kansas City officers have worn body cameras at a cost of around $4 million a year. The expectation that outfitting police officers with body cameras was to somehow improve or restore police legitimacy is misguided at best, especially in the context of the long and storied history of outright police lies and dishonesty.

Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016).

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