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Social media has done more for transparency and accountability than police body-worn cameras

Canadian PoliticsHuman RightsMedia

Protests against police violence in Danbury, Connecticut. Photo by Johnell Pannell/Unsplash.

Following the circulation of a recent video of a violent altercation with police, Montréal mayor Valérie Plante has renewed calls for police body-worn cameras. The cameras are also currently being discussed in Winnipeg.

Despite the push for technology touted to improve police behaviour, viral videos on social media have arguably done more for police transparency and accountability than body-worn cameras.

Perhaps a better idea is to encourage the public to record police encounters with citizens.

Until the mid-aughts police maintained near complete control of public discourse about crime and most matters concerning use of force encounters with citizens. Viral videos on social media have since complicated police control over contemporary crime narratives, as I detail in my book Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.

These changes can be traced back to late 2006 when one of the first reported videos of police abuse was shared on YouTube.

The user-recorded mobile phone video documented a violent police arrest in Los Angeles and was denounced by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The recording showed police officers on top of suspect William Cardenas, repeatedly punching him in the face. At the end of 2006, a search of “police brutality” on YouTube returned just 500 videos. In less than a decade the same search would return tens of millions of results.

Enter body-worn cameras.

Police are less able to control and manage public interpretations of use of force when crime materials widely circulate on social media platforms. Body cameras allow police to regain some lost control over public discourse about crime and police use of force, but do not be fooled: the cameras themselves will never increase police accountability or transparency, at least not while the footage continues to remain controlled by police and not an independent third party.

There is no evidence to indicate that body cameras will somehow miraculously improve police transparency, especially since there is no consensus by what “transparency” means between the public, politicians, and police management. Further, the release of body camera footage has been wholly inconsistent, at best, making it more difficult for the public to discern when, how, or if police are held accountable for their actions as documented in body camera footage.

The research on the efficacy of body cameras is also inconclusive, yet the devices are continually touted as a panacea (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary) sometimes at cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers. The prevailing unscientific belief is that if the cameras are present officers are less likely to engage in misconduct and citizens are more likely to comply with police commands.

Police body-worn cameras were initially piloted in England in 2005 (the year YouTube launched) and in Canada in British Columbia in 2009. However, it was the 2013 Toronto police shooting and killing of teenager Sammy Yatim on a streetcar that served as a watershed moment for the police adoption of body cameras in Canada.

A citizen recorded video of the police killing of Yatim was quickly shared on social media and in advance of any context, that is, police administrators were unable to control the narrative in advance of the release of the video of what happened, how it happened, and why it happened.

The video brought immediate public attention to the police shooting (transparency) and the officer who shot and killed Yatim was eventually found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to prison (accountability). Similarly, the video of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought immediate attention to his death and prompted widespread protests. The officer charged with the murder of Floyd is now on trial that is streaming for all to see—total transparency.

We can reasonably surmise that absent the viral video of Floyd’s horrific death the public would not be privy to the trial, and perhaps no criminal charges would have been filed, giving the lie to the promise that body cameras will somehow bring more transparency and accountability to contemporary policing.

Consider, for instance, the fatal police shooting of African American man Kenneth Jones in Omaha, Nebraska in November 2020. Police have steadfastly refused to release body camera footage that captured the shooting despite public calls for transparency into the altercation that resulted in Jones’s death. No charges have yet resulted from the shooting.

Around the same time last year, a bill was proposed in France to make it illegal to record police (the bill was subsequently dropped after widespread protests). We must continue to ensure that it not only remains legal but encouraged to record police in Canada. Rather than continue to fund body cameras that are limited in scope, the police—in the true interest of transparency and accountability—should encourage the public to record their interactions with police.

Smart phones will of course not be present during all encounters with police but encouraging recording will contribute more to increased transparency and accountability, especially given that the public cannot expect that police will necessarily share body-worn camera footage.

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.

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