By Bryn Whitney-Blum
On January 15th, 2015, members of CODEPINK and the Los Angeles community convened at the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Canoga Park for a LAPD-sponsored hearing on body cameras. To clarify, police commissioner Steve Soboroff and police chief Charlie Beck did not care to hear whether or not the public actually wanted body cameras to be used in their communities; to paraphrase Commissioner Soboroff, the acquisition of body cameras for the LAPD was a done deal and attendees should not bother voicing their displeasure on this matter. The stated goal of the Thursday hearing was to get public input on what policies would govern the use of body cameras and the LAPD representatives attempted to make that the focus of the conversation despite objections from citizens.
I am CODEPINK LA’s newest intern and this was the first event I attended with our organization, and I will admit I approached the meeting with some naive optimism. I believed that community members would at least get the chance to fully voice their opinions at the podium, and that we would receive answers from the LAPD even if they weren’t the solutions we wanted. This daydream died at the introduction of the meeting, when it was established that each person would only be allowed two minutes of speaking time and, in a reversal of policy from the previous night’s meeting, speakers would not be allowed to give their time to others.
The apparent issues with body cameras are too numerous to list, but the speakers attempted to condense their thoughts into two minute segments. The vast majority spoke out against body cameras, citing lack of transparency and third-party oversight, excessive financial burdens, minimal police accountability, and excessive surveillance as reasons to regulate or even eliminate the use of body cameras.
Several speakers addressed what I deem to be the most critical problem with body cameras: that, like other forms of policing, body cameras will be used to further dominate, oppress, and punish marginalized communities. Mike Brown and the other countless Black men and women murdered by police are living proof that Black citizens, as well as other people of color, are targeted more viciously by police and that the “protect and serve” motto does not apply equally to all citizens.
The lack of justice that body cameras would provide is further demonstrated by the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner, whose brutal suffocation was captured on camera, and whose killer still walked away without an indictment. Our legal system did not bring justice to Michael Brown, and body cameras did not bring justice to Eric Garner. In a nation where existing as a Black person may be viewed as a punishable crime by a passing police officer and young Black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than their white peers, it’s ridiculous to expect that body cameras would remedy the overt racial bias in American policing.
Despite the multiple concerns raised by community members about the racial targeting of the police force and how this pattern would extend to body cameras, these matters were not addressed during the answer period that followed public comment. It should also be noted that almost all of the dozens of police officers in attendance (and yes, they were all armed) only a couple were white. At the end of the meeting as people left, a number of white officers came into the room from outside, leading me to believe that the LAPD intentionally populated the room with police of color with the knowledge that police racism would be a major topic of conversation. The LAPD’s apparent acknowledgement of this issue, coupled with the blatant refusal to actually provide answers on how the LAPD will combat it, was disheartening and outrageous.
As long as those in power keep pretending that racism isn’t a prevailing issue, or that it can be saved with fancy new technology like body cameras, the systemic problem of government-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies will continue.
Body cameras are not the answer to ending police brutality, but they have the potential to aid justice. Community oversight, defendant’s rights to access footage, and enforced guidelines for usage could help make body cameras an effective tool in combatting police brutality. But until the LAPD creates major policy change and addresses the deeper problems within itself, we cannot accept body cameras as a solution.
As long as cops are allowed to review their body camera’s footage before debriefings, as long as it is up to officers to determine when their camera are rolling, as long as police continue to unfairly target people of color, and as long as LAPD officials ignore the demands of our communities, the LAPD’s body camera legislation will be a cop-out for justice.
Communities Organizing to Demilitarize Enforcement (CODE), a new CODEPINK initiative, will continue to campaign with communities for the de-escalation of police violence and stopping the militarization of police forces in LA and across the country. The Los Angeles community spoke out at Thursday’s hearing but the fight for accountability and oversight must continue until the LAPD listens and policy is implemented that speaks to our concerns.
Bryn Whitney-Blum is a student activist at Oberlin College in Ohio and CODEPINK LA's newest intern.