Why Body Cams Won’t Prevent Another Ferguson

In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, many people have been grasping for solutions that will prevent tragedies like this from happening again. One of the most suggested solutions has been to require all police to wear “body cams” – small cameras that officers would wear on their uniforms that would record every moment of their shift. By using these videos to document everything that happens, incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown won’t be reduced to choosing between conflicting accounts of police officers and eyewitnesses. Video will provide impartial information that will, in the case of another dispute, let the court and the public know what really happened. Shortly after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson, the parents of Michael Brown announced that they wanted police to wear body cameras so there son’s fate wouldn’t be repeated. Many tech news sites, such as The Verge, have also come out in favor of the use of these cameras.

While I agree that these cameras will provide important, additional information in cases of police brutality and misconduct, they will not prevent the more tragedies like the death of Michael Brown. And the fact that we are reaching for this kind of solution to the problem of police brutality reflects our broken relationship with technology.

Body cameras are capable of recording what happens within their field of view, assuming the necessary power and lighting is available. This information will be valuable in clearing up the indisputable facts around what occurred during an altercation. Time and sequence-oriented details like, “Person #1 then got out of the car”, “Officer #2 then drew his gun” can be resolved with video. What cannot be resolved with this additional information are the intentions that so often motivates action in these cases. The validity of claims such as “Person #1 threatened Officer #2” or “ Person #3 was resisting arresting” can only be inferred from the video and not conclusively proven. This is important because the perceived intent of behavior (by either the officer or person involved) is the catalyst for what is often deadly action.

As a result of video’s limited ability to capture the fullness of what takes place, two things happen. Firstly, we become overconfident with our understanding of what happened:

“The ONLY reason a person would get out of their car during a traffic stop is if they’re up to no good.”

“I don’t care what’s going on. There’s no reason for any police officer to…”.

For a lot of us, there is equivalence between seeing something on video and actually being there. In other words, we assume that by seeing something on video, we’ve seen everything we need to see – the same thing as being there. Secondly, since the video actually provides us with limited information, we subconsciously rely on our preconceived notions and stereotypes to bridge the gap between the information we have and what actually happened. These are the same biases that  trigger incidents like Ferguson to occur in the first place. As we all have witnessed, it is possible for two people to look at the same video and see two very different things. The classic example of this was the video-taped beating of Rodney King by police officers in 1991. While many people looked at the video of an unarmed man being beaten by five police officers as a clear occurrence of police brutality, others (including the Simi Valley jury in the criminal case) saw it as police officers doing their job. “Was the person on the video lunging at the officers, or simply raising his hand to protect himself?” Our perception of the difference between the two – even with video evidence – is often a matter of the stereotypes and biases we bring to the case.

In order to address the root cause of incidents like the Michael Brown shooting, we must all do the uncomfortable and challenging work of questioning our own assumptions about other people. We must go through the painstaking effort necessary to identify the split-second conclusions we make about a person, simply based on how they look or where they’re from. We must slowly peel back our subconscious, and be willing to accept the painful fact that we far too often see others as less than children of God. This is type of gut-wrenching soul transformation is done with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This is something that technology will never be able to do for us. We must do this work ourselves.

It is only through that type of human-powered transformation that we will prevent future tragedies like the death of Michael Brown. Or Eric Garner. Or Trayvon Martin. Or Sean Bell. Or Akai Gurley.

The fact that we look to devices to solve people-based problems like this speaks to the broken nature of our relationship with technology. Instead of doing the more difficult, time-consuming work of changing ourselves, we look to technology as a short cut. We look to our machines to make things easier for us. We even look to them to fix the problems that we should (and must) fix for ourselves. Using devices as a crutch to circumvent the human work that results in our own growth is a misuse of the blessing of technology. It ultimately leaves us poorer for the experience, and seldom solves anything.

Please share your thoughts in the Comments…