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Police control of body camera footage undermines meaningful accountability

How can cops be held accountable by body-worn cameras when ‘official’ narratives are controlled by police themselves

Media PolicingHuman Rights

Illustration courtesy the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Police body-worn camera use in Canada is increasing. Since October 2021, all front-line police officers in Toronto have been equipped with the devices. Just last month, the RCMP announced its planned rollout of between 10,000-15,000 body-worn cameras on all front-line officers by 2023 at a cost of $238 million. In November, the Fredericton Police Force similarly announced that they also hope to have their front-line officers outfitted with the devices sometime in 2023. Several other police services across Canada have also adopted the technology and others will likely follow.

Advocates of body cameras roundly assert that the devices will bring transparency and accountability to police practices resulting in discernible improvements to officer behaviour—notably the reduction in police use of force incidents. However, the evidence in support of such claims is mixed and currently little is known about the actual impact body-worn cameras might have on police accountability in practice.

One thing remains certain: as body camera use expands, so will law enforcement accounts of their own behaviour to justify or minimize police use of force that is captured on body camera footage. Doing so is necessary for police to convince the public of procedural fairness—a key aspect of police legitimacy.

Use of force is an inherent part of policing. It is not expected that this technology will cause police violence to disappear from police work, and the public can expect to see more of it moving forward.

Much of what the public learns about police violence comes from the media. Police control of body camera footage—and the resultant narrative—is often offered in response to use of force incidents. When body camera footage of a problematic police-citizen encounter is publicly released and scrutinized, police are expected to provide a credible account, or narrative, of their actions.

What is and what is not police misconduct is strictly a matter of interpretation. Body camera footage merely provides more opportunities for police to neutralize or rationalize their often violent and sometimes lethal actions.

Victims of police violence, law enforcement personnel, media pundits, and community leaders will often provide different and contradictory interpretations of police use of force. Police violence is not unusual, and neither are video recordings as they date back several decades (just think of the 1991 LAPD beating of Rodney King).

Police narratives provided alongside body camera footage released to the public will continue to have serious implications for transparency and accountability, as detailed in recently published research. Therefore, public attention must critically focus on police narration of camera footage because of these newer attempts at persuading the public of the legitimation of police violence.

A few thematic examples help illustrate the point.

In the weeks following the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds (originally reported as eight minutes and 46 seconds), law enforcement officials invoked Floyd’s murder to justify police use of force as captured on body-cam footage.

In Schenectady, New York, for example, the police chief provided the following account of an encounter between a city man and police officer:

I know what it looks like, it doesn’t look good, it’s way too close to [the murder of] George Floyd which was horrible, but let’s put things in perspective—that officer was on George Floyd for eight minutes, this [officer kneeling on the suspect’s neck] was 1:40 seconds and [the suspect] was at the police station protesting hours later.

The issue here is with a difference in time, not of kind. The legitimation of police violence becomes redefined by the outcome of the encounter.

Consider another account by a police administrator in Orange County, Florida in relation to body camera footage of police shooting and killing a Black man: “This is not a George Floyd incident where this was eight minutes long. This happened in a millisecond, in the blink of an eye.” In other words, killing someone quickly is less bad than killing them slowly.

In other use of force incidents captured on body camera footage, police officials excused police actions because an officer’s perceptions and intent could not be distinguished by reviewing the tape alone.

Police in Fontana, California, for instance, released body camera footage of an officer shooting an unarmed man holding a lighter. According to the police chief, “Due to limited lighting in this case, the footage does not clearly show what the officer saw.”

A basic argument for police body cameras is transparency, which is characterized by visibility. If what the public sees in released body camera footage of police use of force is not what the police say it is then there cannot be accountability.

Law enforcement officials assert that police narration of body camera recording is necessary because footage will never show the entire context of an incident, and that recordings will be subject to conditions of poor lighting, poor audio, and limited camera angles. Morally dubious media firms have since emerged in the wake of police narration of body camera footage, producing new “marketing videos” to help police persuade the public of their view regarding the legitimation of police violence—including death.

As police services continue to adopt and roll-out body-worn cameras, it is inevitable that the public will become more aware of police actions imprinted on the footage they record. With an increase in available footage—particularly around use of force—police narration of these events will continue to justify and legitimate police violence. What remains unclear is how the police can be held accountable by the use of body-worn cameras when the “official” narrative is manufactured and controlled by police themselves.

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).

Erick Laming is an assistant professor in criminology and sociology at Trent University. His main research examines police use of force and accountability.


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