Video Didn’t Save Eric Garner, Body Cameras Won’t Save You

A grand jury's decision not to indict Eric Garner's killer sparked nationwide anger and protests.
A grand jury’s decision not to indict Eric Garner’s killer sparked nationwide anger and protests. (Flickr)

EspañolDaniel Pantaleo choked a man to death on camera. He wrapped his arm around his victim’s neck and squeezed until the life escaped his body. The victim was, of course, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black father of six, whose final words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for social justice.

If you didn’t know Pantaleo was a New York City police officer, you’d expect him to be sitting in a jail cell right now. The fact that he isn’t, and that knowing he’s a cop somehow instantly admonishes him of any guilt, should give us all great pause to wonder … why?

On Wednesday, December 3, a Staten Island grand jury cleared Pantaleo of any wrongdoing by electing not to indict him for Garner’s murder. The decision immediately sparked protests around New York, and across the country, only nine days after a St. Louis grand jury similarly cleared police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in early August in Ferguson, Missouri.

Officer Pantaleo denies ever applying a chokehold on Eric Garner.
Officer Pantaleo denies ever applying a chokehold on Eric Garner. (@Mediaite)

Public outrage has seemingly forced the Obama administration to react — to do something, anything, that could possibly help solve the problem of police accountability.

In typical Hegelian-dialectic fashion, however, the federal government has seized this opportunity to offer up a “solution” that only furthers their own objectives.

Obama’s Executive Order

On December 1, President Obama issued an executive order authorizing US$263 million in funding for local police departments to “improve training” and purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras, or “body cams.”

Meanwhile, the order also ensures the federal programs responsible for funneling military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies are sustained. In standard political double talk, the president said the federal government wants to make sure “we’re not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement,” while at the same time suggesting these programs “actually serve a very useful purpose.”

The irony of Obama’s proposal was perhaps best captured by the Onion’s headline: “Obama Calls For Turret-Mounted Video Cameras On All Police Tanks.”

The move toward issuing body cams to local police follows a predictable trend, considering the technology’s increased popularity within law enforcement and among well-meaning civil libertarians. They have foolishly bought into the government’s line that “more surveillance will keep you safe.”

Last March, I wrote about the proliferation of body cameras and the dangers of relying on them as a way of keeping law enforcement accountable. At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he was considering a proposal to supply Border Patrol agents with the technology.

The footage gained from body cams is entirely police-run, securely networked within each local department, not unlike dash cam video or any other form of police surveillance. Make no mistake, this is still the police filming you, not the other way around.

The effectiveness of body-worn cameras is premised almost exclusively on a single study conducted by Police Chief Tony Ferrar and Barak Ariel in Rialto, California. While the study’s basic findings are sound — people will, generally speaking, adjust their behavior when they know they’re being watched — the larger implications drawn from the experiment are deeply flawed.

Obama's executive order authorizes federal funds to supply local police with body-worn cameras. (@intelligencer)
Obama’s executive order authorizes federal funds to supply local police with body-worn cameras. (@intelligencer)

To suggest police-worn cameras will provide footage that is beneficial to the public, leading to potential indictments or even convictions of offending officers, is incredibly disingenuous. Not even the Rialto study or the police-reform advocates who initially championed this technology make this claim. Furthermore, the Eric Garner case and the grand jury’s refusal to indict officer Pantaleo, despite video evidence of the killing, demonstrates camera footage alone is no guarantee of justice.

Instead, what the Rialto study proposes is that the mere presence of a body-worn camera, and the foreknowledge that their actions are being recorded, will cause police officers to check their behavior and become more likely to “follow the rules.”

The study opens its introduction with a question, referencing one of the most famous examples of police brutality in our modern history: “The Rodney King story is a potent reminder about the enormous power that police officers have and how it can sometimes be abused … would the Rodney King incident [have been] avoided had the officers known that they [were] being videotaped?”

The answer, of course, is yes, but only if the officers believed there would be consequences to their actions. Ironically, it was the verdict in the Rodney King case — the jury acquitting the four officers shown on video beating King senseless while he lay on the ground — that set the precedent for police to effectively act with impunity, video evidence be damned.

In fact, a New York Daily News investigation has revealed that in New York City alone, on-duty police officers have killed at least 179 people over the last 15 years. Of those cases, only three led to criminal charges against the officer, and just one was convicted. The lone officer who was convicted, however, received no jail time.

In other words, the message from the judicial system over the years has been clear: if you wear a badge and kill someone, the odds of being punished are slim to none.

We’ve now reached the point in 2014 when a police officer can choke a man to death on camera, in broad daylight, and before witnesses, and the court decides it’s not even worth the effort of a trial.

Furthermore, the results of these body-camera studies have shown that the most significant effect their implementation has had is in enabling police to more quickly resolve complaints lodged against their own department, and to gather evidence that benefits the state.

In short, body camera technology is yet another tool in the state’s surveillance apparatus, and absent any reasonable expectation of accountability, any measurable “civilizing effect” on the police will surely wear off over time.

Obama’s Hypocrisy

President Obama’s executive order that aims to “improve policing” comes amid claims of a personal commitment to alleviate the “simmering mistrust” between local law enforcement and minority communities most affected by police violence. “This time will be different,” he said during a meeting at the White House with activists from Ferguson.

“Part of the reason this time will be different is because the president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” he added, implying he has a personal stake in the matter based on his own ethnicity.

He further clarified this position in an interview with BET on Monday, stating “This is not only personal for me, because of who I am and who Michelle is and who our family members are and what our experiences are, but as president, I consider this to be one of the most important issues we face.”

This comes from a man who does not bat an eye at ordering the deaths of people of color in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2012, amid the controversy surrounding the George Zimmerman trial, he said that if he had a son “he’d look like Trayvon [Martin]”; yet he says nothing of the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Alwaki whose death via drone strike he ordered only four months earlier. Abdulrahman was killed, presumably, for the alleged sins of his father — Anwar al-Alwaki — one of the many names on Obama’s “kill list” of high-value targets marked for assassination.

The Obama administration has been responsible for the deaths of thousands in a campaign of state violence in the name of “national security.” The killing is rationalized away, however, since anyone the state targets is naturally a “terrorist threat” — someone who aims to “do us harm” and threatens our freedom.

To the extent that we identify with our government, and see a part of ourselves in the state, there will be a tendency to assign blame to the victims of state violence. Just as Michael Brown was “no angel,” and Eric Garner an illegal cigarette trader, anyone the state murders must necessarily be guilty. Otherwise, if we allowed the state to kill the innocent without consequence, what would that say about us?

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