A body camera for everyone? Let’s unpack that thought for a moment.
If there is one thing that we know about Walter Scott — other than the fact he was murdered in cold blood by a criminal who was an officer with the North Charleston police department — it is that a video camera made a difference. The videotaping of the fatal shooting by Feiden Santana, 23, may very well prevented Walter Scott from becoming another Michael Brown, with no trial for the killer and no justice for the family. Although the Scott family cannot bring their loved one back, they are fortunate that someone was around to document the tragic event and tell the true story of what happened.
As a result of the Scott killing, the North Charleston police has ordered 250 body cameras for its police force, reigniting the debate over the technology. Body cameras have been shown to reduce police violence.
However, as Jamilah King reported in TakePart, while about a third of police forces wear body cameras, the cameras serve the purposes of the police more than the community. After all, cameras — which officers are able to turn on or off at will — are no ultimate solution for fixing a systemic problem and reforming a rotten police culture.
But what if all of us in the community had a body camera that we could turn on whenever we encounter the police, or instruct our children to turn on whenever they are stopped by the cops? That sounds like a Big Brother in reverse and a potentially effective form of community empowerment that allows people to become active participants in their neighborhoods, rather than sitting ducks.
You can instruct your children how to behave, what to do and what not to say when the police roll up, but that is no guarantee of safety. You can even tell them how to dress, mistakenly, perhaps even naively, believing, as did black attorney Otis Graham, that not wearing a hoodie, wearing a friendly smile and dressing like the Huxtables at all times will protect your child from racial profiling, a police chokehold or a bullet.
Filming the police is a First Amendment-protected remedy that in many ways takes us back to the days of the Black Panthers, this time without the shotguns. Faced with an epidemic of police brutality in the black community, a persistent problem over the years, the Panthers decided to organize the community, establish social programs and monitor police behavior. Shooting the camera could prove an effective tool, even a powerful weapon, in keeping our children safe. The organization Copblock, which says filming the police is a form of protection because it produces an objective record, even provides instructions on how to video the cops.
If there is strength in numbers, then giving a body camera to everyone would be the great equalizer. And those heroes such as Feiden Santana who have filmed acts of police violence would not feel alone. Santana, who was and still is scared, considered deleting the video of the Scott shooting and leaving town. George Holliday, the man who filmed the Rodney King beating, found himself on hard times and even lost his camera. And the only person indicted in the Staten Island chokehold case of Eric Garner was Ramsey Orta, the man who actually filmed the killing. Orta was harassed by the police, charged with gun possession, and his wife Chrissie was arrested for an alleged assault, apparently an act of police retaliation for filming the chokehold incident.
Of course, we know that even when we can go to the videotape, as in the case of Garner, some lives are still lost, and justice may not be served. But what if we all had a body camera? With the tools of technology and social media, everyone can become a citizen journalist. Or just protect themselves and their children.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove