The Department of Justice is looking to help equip more law enforcement officers with body cameras.
The Obama administration is spending $20 million on police body cameras, amid rising tension over police violence.
The announcement from the Justice Department on Friday would create a new pilot program to equip police in dozens of cities with the devices, as the first step in a $75 million three-year effort that President Obama requested from Congress in December.
“This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department’s comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support and training they need to tackle the 21st century challenges we face,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement shared with media outlets. “Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
One-third of the first $20 million will be routed to “small law enforcement agencies” — the ones least likely to adopt this technology due to the cost of acquiring cameras. While grants towards initial purchases are helpful, unless there’s more money on the way, ongoing maintenance and video storage costs will still be stated as reasons to avoid equipping officers with cameras.
This is a good move forward, though, even if simply equipping cops with cameras isn’t a quick fix for law enforcement misconduct. As it stands now, most camera-equipped officers still exercise a great deal of control over what actually gets captured. And police departments — often aided by sympathetic legislators — are working quickly to limit the public’s access to body camera recordings.
While there have been reports that body cameras have lowered both citizen complaints and use of force incidents, there’s still more than enough released body cam footage that indicates it will take more than realizing they’re being recorded to deter certain officers’ abusive behavior and excessive force.
For instance, here’s some footage captured by a Utah police officer’s body cam that shows he and his fellow officers unleashing a police dog on a person with both hands in the air (while claiming the suspect “might have had a weapon” [that he was going to pull with his feet?]). Knowing a camera was running didn’t result in any additional restraint by the officers.
Then there’s the matter of the “extra rights” many officers have secured through police union pressure and law enforcement-friendly lawmakers. In addition to maintaining control over the release of footage, officers in some cities are given up to three days to review evidence before making a statement — or even answering questions about the incident itself.
The administration’s decision to fund body camera efforts is an implicit criticism of the current state of American policing. Police officers are well aware of what message is being sent by the deployment of these cameras. Even though captured footage also holds the power to exonerate wrongly-accused police officers, this fact is seldom mentioned by those critical of these programs. Instead, officers and their representatives suddenly develop concerns about the public’s privacy — something they’ve never expressed much interest in over the past several — and mostly unrecorded — decades.