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Body cameras are only first step toward ending police brutality

Police brutality has a long and ugly history in this country, and it seems that Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown this past summer was the last straw —the entire country is finally taking a powerful stand against it. Protestors have made it clear that they will not let this one go. 

The injustice of the recent grand jury decision not to indict Wilson (meaning he would not even have to go to trial) is what is fueling these already raging protests, and the issue is receiving national and international attention. The National Bar Association released a statement criticizing the grand jury decision, voicing its concern with the corruption of the prosecutor regarding his conflict of interest in the case and making it clear that the case would still be pursued at a federal level. Even the United Nations has set up a special panel to investigate the way the U.S. deals with police brutality against black people. There’s really no question about it: Black people in America continue to deal with racism and injustice on an institutional level that has no place here or anywhere else in the world, and it is literally costing them their lives.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced that the federal government is providing $263 million to fund police training and body cameras. This includes $75 million specifically allocated for 50,000 cameras for police officers across the country. Several police departments across the country already use cameras on patrol cars and body cameras on officers, including a few in New Jersey. There is some evidence to suggest that police officers that wear the cameras are less likely to abuse their authority. For example, in a recent study by the Police Foundation, about half of the police patrol in Rialto, California wore body cameras for a year. By the end of the study, there were three complaints filed against police officers in the force, down from 28 the previous year.

The rest of the federal funding goes toward police training, educational resources and outreach programs to build trusting relationships between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve. These are the kinds of programs that we need to be focusing on if we expect any real, meaningful change in the mentality of law enforcement officials across the country. 

The general lack of accountability from police has been a hot topic, and many activists — including Brown’s parents — have called for body cameras on all police officers to address the issue. This is certainly an important step in what is going to be a long, multi-faceted approach to cracking down on the unacceptable abuse of power by law enforcement. The recent grand jury decision not to indict Wilson was attributed to a lack of clear evidence and conflicting eyewitness accounts — cameras are obviously extremely useful for capturing evidence that is often disputed. But they are not a sufficient solution to the issue at hand.

While equipping officers with body cameras is sure to increase accountability on a superficial level, it still does nothing to address the underlying and deeply rooted issues of structural, institutional, blatant racism that drive the crimes committed by police officers against members of the black community. Brown’s shooting is not an isolated incident rather part of a disturbing pattern of law enforcement officials targeting black communities. Equipping police officers with body cameras is too much of a short-term solution, and while it will obviously help to hold police officers accountable for their actions, it cannot be seen as a substitute for a systemic, sustainable solution. If the government is pouring hundreds of million of dollars into alleviating a serious nationwide program, we really hope that there is an appropriate amount of research going into it to make sure it’s targeting the right issues in the rights ways. Body cameras might help as a temporary Band-Aid, but we need to see more proactive solutions being presented before we can begin to make real progress.

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