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Body-worn cameras and ending the public subsidization of police accountability

Police must be held accountable for misconduct captured on body cameras—but the public can’t be expected to subsidize it

USA Politics

In just the past decade alone, cities across the United States spent in excess of $3 billion to settle police misconduct lawsuits. Illustration by Jared Rodriguez/Truthout.

The second-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd has already re-ignited the debate around body-worn cameras, police misconduct, and law enforcement accountability.

According to FiveThirtyEight, in just the past decade alone, cities across the United States spent in excess of $3 billion to settle police misconduct lawsuits, or about the equivalent of the 2019 GDP of the Republic of Burundi, a country in East Africa.

The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 fuelled a rapid uptake of body cameras by police forces across the country. By 2016, nearly half of US law enforcement agencies had the devices.

Police misconduct settlements have also increased steadily since 2015. As officers continue to adopt and wear the cameras, it is expected there will be a corresponding deluge of video evidence that could be useful in holding bad actors to account.

Police use of force and citizen complaints are the most frequently tested outcome measures of body-worn cameras. However, experimental results have been inconclusive on the effect this technology has on police use of force. The expectation with body-worn cameras is that the public will comply with police commands and that officers will not engage in misconduct.

We know body-worn cameras will not put an end to police misconduct or unjustified use of force by police. While they will undoubtedly capture more incidences of police brutality, exposing this misconduct to the public, many police departments have added roadblocks to access, in some cases refusing to release camera footage.

A consistent argument put forward by law enforcement leaders and politicians is that body cameras will improve accountability and save money, but both claims are dubious at best. Leaders have also routinely asserted that body-worn cameras could save taxpayers in the long run by reducing the number of excessive force lawsuits. The available evidence so far does not support this.

Body camera programs are expensive and can demonstrably increase police budgets. Much of the cost is in the storage of video footage—which, in some cases, costs taxpayers millions every year. Since body-worn cameras are relatively new for most police departments, it is far too early to definitively determine any cost saving benefits.

What we do know is there has been an increasing number of civil lawsuits against police misconduct in recent years, despite the apparent prevalence of body cameras and the fact they have been worn by many officers who have gone on to wrongfully kill or injure civilians.

There is no public database that tracks police misconduct lawsuits in the US. Therefore, we have no way of knowing the true extent of wrongful death settlements and the total amount paid out by taxpayers to the families of victims.

Since 2016 in the US, at least $50 million has been awarded in wrongful-death lawsuits where police were recording the incident on a body camera. In each case, public dollars paid for the cost of the officer’s misconduct.

We also know that in most cases officers are not criminally charged when they kill, even when wrongful death is determined using body camera footage.

The families of Paul O’Neal ($2.2 million), Alton Sterling ($4.4 million), Terrence Sterling ($3.5 million), Stephon Clark ($2.4 million), Matthew Graves ($4.5 million), and Humberto Martinez ($7.3 million) were awarded settlements after police killed these individuals. Each death was recorded on a body-worn camera. To date, none of the officers involved in these deaths have been criminally charged.

Most recently, the police killings of Duante Wright in Minnesota and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago will likely also result in multi-million dollar wrongful death settlements. Whether or not these officers will be held accountable remains uncertain.

As body-worn cameras become widespread across the US with police services regularly adopting the technology or state legislatures mandating its use, taxpayers will continue bearing the brunt of the financial cost for police accountability.

So far, the evidence is clear that police body-worn cameras are largely ineffective in holding individual officers accountable for bad behaviour. One simple remedy to this dilemma is to require police officers to carry personal liability insurance to cover misconduct claims.

The individual officer assumption of financial on-the-job risk remains necessary to help deter police misconduct and, importantly, so at the very least bad behaviour will no longer be publicly subsidized.

Another option that also assumes financial risk is to pay civil settlements from existing police budgets so that if resources are depleted in large payouts then shortfalls would need to be accounted for with the reduction of officer salaries or layoffs.

The police should absolutely be held accountable for bad behaviour caught on body cameras but the public should not be expected to continue to subsidize it.

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.

Erick Laming is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto focusing on police use of force, accountability, and Indigenous and Black community members’ experiences with police.

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