You can’t solve societal problems with technology. History tells us that. So why in the world are we considering throwing so much money at equipping police officers with body cams? Who will that help? Who will that benefit?
Policing practices of overuse of power, abuse, brutality, and violence are documented. We witness state-sanctioned violence against citizens seemingly every day. Thanks to YouTube, camera phones, CCTV footage, even police dash cams, we have long been able to document what many marginalized people have so often said: the police treat us like shit.
Their behaviors won’t change with increased surveillance. History tells us that. With the widespread dissemination of dash cams across the country (except in Ferguson), we’ve been able to document police encounters with the public. Although dash cams had been widely available in the 80’s, it wasn’t until the world witnessed the brutality associated with the beating of Rodney King that we demanded more police accountability. And although most of these interactions fall within the bounds of normalcy, even the most problematic encounters captured haven’t been egregious enough to warrant sweeping changes in police practices.
And who will they actually be surveilling with body cameras? Not themselves. They will be surveilling the public! They will be increasing their surveillance of some of the most vulnerable segments of society. The already saturated techno-patrol of marginalized communities will only increase.
Police aren’t against surveillance. Although many officers were hesitant with early adoptions of technology, often they report that surveillance technologies help them perform their jobs better, increase officer safety, corroborate their versions of events, reduce liability, and increase transparency to the community (2005 International Association of Chiefs of Police report). Even more telling, the majority of officers said cameras had no effect on their decision to use force.
So as the recent non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo (the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death) revealed, even when documented, recorded, archived, and witnessed by dozens, our justice system operates in a manner that will protect the hegemonic establishment and process Black and Brown bodies into a system of White supremacy.
Several reasoning citizens, acting as part of the criminal justice system decided there was not enough evidence to warrant an indictment. This is what our American justice system does. It’s not broken. It has operated in this manner for decades, creating different paradigms of justice depending on the identities of victim, offender, depending on the jurisdiction, and on history.
People are seeking justice when it has never existed for many marginalized groups in this country, especially those who used to be considered three-fifths of a person. The justice system continues to devalue your life. It still sees you as property. As a population of people needing to be controlled and corralled like cattle. As a group not worthy of full consideration of due process and justice.
So what will these body cams do in the name of justice? Nothing for those who are still seeking equal protection under the law. It will increase surveillance on you. It will have more evidence to put you behind bars and convict you. It will have a voyeur effect because it won’t be watching them, it will be watching you. It will be a continuation of the punishment of Black and Brown bodies.
As Albert Burneko stated, there is no flaw in the design, this is the design.
But are we bound to this flawed design? No. We are not bound to this broken system, any more than we are bound to the shitty ideas that are its foundation. But here’s the hard part: are we brave enough to drop the old way of doing things, and to begin the search for something new? And are we sufficiently braver still to take the most fearsome and rewarding risk humans can take – to connect with and authentically care about a stranger? Are we prepared to conquer our fear? The authors are. We say that you are, too, even if you don’t know it yet. In fact, we say that there isn’t actually any choice in the matter.
A year to the day before he himself was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King told his audience at the Riverside Church in New York City that we must move from being a thing-centered society to being a person-centered society. His dream, the dream that may well have cost him his life, was a society where each of us is an end in ourselves, not ever a means to an end. He dreamed that how we interact with our social institutions (like the police) and how we interact with each other will be guided first and foremost by our inherent nobility and beauty as sentient beings. Hear Us Now: such a world is fully possible.
His dream is our dream, too, but with something of an update. We have a dream that the mainstream media would never consider selling time or print using lies, in particular, the Black-Male-as-Monster myth. We have a dream that police officers and community members of all colors and cultures can dialogue, listening deeply to each other, and honor each other without the merest tension. We have a dream that economic, educational, and social injustices would be banished from the human landscape, findable only in museums. Most of all, we have a dream that angry hearts will find their true nature, and turn again to love.
So many hopes and dreams get one little without practical means. We have some suggestions there. First, cultivate self-awareness. Know your feelings but do not be a victim of them. Second, cultivate discipline. Reverend James Lawson was so wildly successful in his work with the first civil rights movement because he taught careful discipline to the student activists with whom he worked. Third, listening. We must learn to listen more than we talk. We must listen to what matters: each other. Turn off that God-damned television and listen to someone in pain. And understand them. Fourth, act with mindfulness ad compassion in all things, even when doing so is inhumanly difficult.
Manning Marable said that criminal justice was to be the civil rights issue of the Twenty-First Century. Now is the time. We may still find comfort in the songs of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and the like, but let us now add new ones to the chorus.
Kishonna L. Gray, PhD
Critical Gaming Lab Director
School of Justice Studies, Women & Gender Studies, African/African-American Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Dr. Michael DeValve
Department of Criminal Justice
Fayetteville State University