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The Big Picture: Maybe It's Too Early to Lose Faith in Body Cameras 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014
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Body-mounted cameras became the policing item du jour in November after Michael Brown's family urged all law enforcement departments to adopt them. Politicians and legislators agreed that video footage could have solved the murky details surrounding Brown's death, and possibly brought charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him.

By that time, police departments throughout the country were already adopting the technology. New York City's force had a pilot project in the works; Los Angeles police had been testing cameras for months. In San Francisco, Supervisor John Avalos had renewed his push for a body camera cost assessment, which he first proposed in April. Avalos said these gadgets might have shed light on the March death of Alejandro Nieto, the man who was shot by a San Francisco cop in Bernal Heights. Like Michael Brown, Nieto became a cause celebre.

In September, Deputy Policy Chief Sharon Ferrigno confirmed that San Francisco had received a $250,000 Department of Justice grant for a camera pilot program, which would be implemented "in the near future." SFPD is still ironing out its camera policy, according to a spokeswoman. Meanwhile, public opinion has shifted. With the Eric Garner chokehold death failing to produce an indictment of New York cop Daniel Pantaleo, pundits who once touted the unassailable truth of video are suddenly hedging.

So are protesters who turned out en masse to decry the Eric Garner verdict. Some believe that police will edit the footage, while others fear they'll use the cameras to spy on civilians. (San Jose police delayed its camera program over privacy concerns.) Avalos has also started to change his tune, voicing reservations about accountability and cost (storing footage is about $50-$60 per officer, per month, according to Avalos' legislative aide Jeremy Pollock).

"As the Eric Garner case shows, even clear evidence of egregious police aggression ... did not stop our racist justice system," Avalos says via text message.

Maybe so. Granted, the Eric Garner case is not without historical precedent: A widely distributed video of the 1991 Rodney King beating failed to secure a guilty verdict from an all-white jury; two of the officers who bludgeoned King were ultimately sentenced on civil rights charges, but only after the federal government stepped in.

Still, many would say we're better off for having those videos. To date, millions have viewed the chokehold video of Eric Garner on YouTube. The footage inspired a spate of protests against police brutality, shutting down cities throughout the nation. It provides incontrovertible proof of the systemic failures that Avalos cites.

To undermine the cameras now might seem misguided, particularly in light of President Obama's new proposal to invest $75 million in the devices. Perhaps the takeaway from Eric Garner's death isn't that video doesn't work, it's that it can't exist in a vacuum. A machine can't deliver justice, but it can be a valuable tool.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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