Americans overwhelmingly expect racially charged unrest this summer. And that means police need to get body cameras ASAP—or risk some very dire consequences, lawmakers say.
“In the current atmosphere around this country, delay is dangerous,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a leading proponent of a body camera bill that would provide federal grants for law enforcement to purchase the technology.
Cleaver, who was once the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said he observed that crime spiked in the summer months. High school students—responsible for much of the early violence in Baltimore—will be out of the classroom for the summer.
"Recall how the Baltimore problem started, with schoolkids. When you add idleness with the growing tension [with law enforcement], plus the lack of employment opportunities for teenagers, it is a dangerous mix," Cleaver said.
Hot summer weather can also contribute to violence, something embedded in the cultural consciousness by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and affirmed by various studies. One New York Times analysis of New York City murders called summer “the prime time for murder,” while a meta-analysis of 60 scientific studies found that higher temperatures (and extreme rainfall) led to “large increases in conflict.”
The coming months could be an especially trying time for the United States this year if tensions between communities and law enforcement continue to rise: A staggering 96 percent of Americans expect racially charged unrest this summer, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted the week that Baltimore was burned and looted.
“I don’t think polling would be where it is right now if every police department had body cameras," said an aide to Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican presidential candidate who has expressed deep interest in criminal justice reform. “If you have body cameras used in an effective way, and a way that’s accessible to the public...I think you would see a decrease in the public concern about clashes.”
Thus the solution, according to bipartisan efforts that have yielded several proposals, is to act swiftly to blunt public distrust of law enforcement by equipping police with body cameras.
“The psychology here is that we will be able to convince the American public that we have seen what’s been happening and we have taken action. It also cancels out what I’ve been hearing from young people in Ferguson, and that is: Since all this started way back when, even [since] Trayvon Martin, nothing has happened,” Cleaver said. “[And] it sends a signal to the police, the ones who are inclined to violate the law that they were sworn to enforce, that the whole country is now ready to make sure that their sinister notions can never be carried out.”
After the August 2014 violence in Ferguson, Mo., precipitated by the death of Michael Brown, reform efforts centered on the so-called 1033 program, the process by which surplus military equipment is distributed to local and state law enforcement agencies.
Lawmakers had been dismayed by the images of mine-resistant vehicles on the streets of Ferguson, and a number proposed measures to change the program. But law enforcement—even the SWAT lobby—pushed back hard against these efforts, arguing that the system had a legitimate use.
Body cameras are an entirely different issue. Video can be used to protect officers from false claims just as easily as it can help the public deter police abuse.
Video captured the shooting death of Walter Scott, an African American who was shot in the back while running from a policeman in South Carolina. On the flip side, an Albuquerque police officer was able to rebut false charges of sexual assault due to the body camera he was wearing.
“If you have a body cam, you protect the good cops and you get rid of the bad ones,” Cleaver said.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) spoke in support of body cameras after the worst of the Baltimore rioting, citing for reporters a study that found the technology has led to a “90 percent in drop in complaints against law enforcement officers, and a 60 percent drop in force used by officers. That combination suggests to me that bringing to bear everyday technology that’s available in cell phones, making that part of the equipment for officers, makes a lot sense.”
Scott asked for and received a hearing on body cameras from a key Senate Judiciary subcommittee, which will take place next week. The South Carolina Republican said he favors federal grants to assist localities with purchasing body cameras but no federal mandate that forces cops to wear them.
“You’ll see a growing number of public officials agreeing with him on the need to move quickly on this issue,” said Sean Conner, a Scott spokesman.
And on the House side, Democratic Rep. Cleaver recently met with Republican Speaker John Boehner, coming away with the impression that the speaker wants the Republican-led Judiciary Committee to act and bring recommendations to him on body cameras. “My only fear is delay,” Cleaver said.
There is a drive within Congress for something to be done on body cameras, judging by the number of bipartisan proposals put forward to increase their use: Sen. Scott may introduce one, depending on the results of the Senate hearing next week; Sens. Rand Paul and Brian Schatz joined with Reps. Corrine Brown and Keith Ellison to propose a pilot grant program for body-worn cameras; while Rep. Cleaver and Rep. Al Green introduced a bill that redirects some $20 million in existing grant money toward body camera purchases.
“Something will pass. That’s for sure, because there’s momentum here,” the Paul aide said. “The polling is really good on body cameras…The issue isn’t whether something will pass but rather what shape it will be.”
The idea that body cameras can be some sort of cure-all for decades of mistrust between police and inner-city youth is utopian—at best, they can serve as a check against abuse, on both sides.
“We can debate the concept till oxygen depletes, but unless we have an end-product that is fair for all parties, progress will be limited. Video has its limits and will not be the eye-from-the-sky save-all that some are expecting. We can’t simply throw a camera at a problem and expect miraculous outcomes,” said Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which does not have a formal position on body cameras.
There are also privacy concerns: Body cameras could capture witnesses to a crime who will later be asked to testify, endangering their safety, and privacy groups have raised concerns about how long police videos would be saved.
And there are fears about officer safety and officer resources: A police union for Miami-Dade County’s cops, for example, has complained that the cameras could be a distraction for cops, who could hesitate before acting—which could threaten their well-being.
But at its core, increasing the number of body cameras that will be worn by law enforcement is a proposal that has deep bipartisan support.
"Five years from now, this will be a foregone conclusion: that body cameras will be a normal, natural thing for law enforcement officers that interact with the public on a consistent basis," Scott said.