Cops and Cameras
The non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner, came just two days after President Obama announced his support for body cameras to address police violence.
The fact that Eric Garner’s death was clearly filmed raises justifiable criticisms regarding the proposed cameras’ effectiveness. At the same time, the large, national protests over the non-indictment are due in part to the horror of witnessing Mr. Garner’s death on instant video replay.
We Charge Genocide (“WCG”) was formed to center the voices and experiences of the young people of color disproportionately and violently targeted by the Chicago Police Department. As part of this effort, WCG focuses on training Chicagoans to record police behavior during interactions with civilians as a way to lift up young people’s experiences and voices. In the face of rampant police abuses with no condemnation from the City of Chicago, we see watching the cops as a method to improve police accountability. Videos recording abusive behavior during police stops in New York City have been effective in shifting public consciousness when combined with broader organizing efforts. Video documentation can support victims’ stories otherwise disfavored for the perspectives of the police themselves – an especially important effect when so many victims of police violence are Black, young, and/or charged with a crime.
As promoters of copwatching, we recognize that it is absolutely fundamental that civilians be the ones holding the cameras. When police control the cameras, those cameras are at the service of police violence.
VIEVU, a prominent manufacturer of body cameras, actually uses the slogan “Made by Cops for Cops. Prove Your Truth.” We know whose truth they are proving – all but one of VIEVU’s corporate management team are former police or SWAT officers. History demonstrates that such cameras will “malfunction” or simply be turned off during critical moments.
Of course, recording police activity alone cannot end police violence. As many have pointed out, the police murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Oscar Grant, and many others were caught on camera. Copwatching must be a part of a larger community organizing effort that includes diverse approaches such as Know Your Rights trainings and the development of transformative community processes for accountability. Only through making the police obsolete in our communities can we begin to create the significant cultural shifts needed in U.S. dialogues about race and criminalization.
We are concerned that the current conversation around body cameras supports a destructive narrative in which police need only to be reformed, and that “guilty” victims of police violence do not deserve to survive. We reject both of these premises. First, we oppose reforms that give additional resources to police departments in general – these reforms only provide the appearance of legitimacy to an inherently racist, violent institution. Second, We Charge Genocide fundamentally rejects the notion that “guilty” victims of police violence deserve extrajudicial executions. We are mindful of the ways in which body cameras could be used to justify police murder by people who look for such pretexts. Finally, we are concerned that turning the cops into walking cameras is nothing but an expansion of the surveillance state – the fruit of a poisonous tree.
Our criminal punishment system fails to provide real safety or execute actual justice.
All reforms that strengthen the prison industrial complex must be strongly opposed. Body cameras will not halt extrajudicial executions by police officers, only providing us more horrific footage to view. The only solution to oppressive policing is to abolish the institution. To this end, We Charge Genocide will continue to work for initiatives that serve our communities, including reparations for victims of police torture, Civilian Police Accountability Projects, and initiatives for data transparency in police activities. We ask that you join with members of your community to reject body cameras as a band-aid solution in the struggle against police violence. 39% of Chicago’s 2014 operating budget was allocated to the Chicago Police Department in a period where schools and community services faced sharp funding cuts and closures. Any viable resolution to the issue of police violence must involve reallocating these resources from militarized police into community services to benefit all Chicagoans.