Police Body Cameras Will Not End Systemic Racism and Police Brutality

by Leah C.K. Lewis

Remember the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” There was a time when the primary purpose of a camera was to record the highlights and the fun and frivolous moments of our lives. Now, the camera is a lawful and vital instrument of social justice and an implement of our (in)justice system.

Citizens, like David Diaz, wisely employ camera phones when police activity occurs in their midst. The world needed to know of the abuse suffered by Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year-old African American woman, at the hands of California Highway Patrolman Daniel Andrew. Otherwise, Ms. Pinnock might not have received justice.

Government entities are using taxpayer-dollar to suit police officers with body cameras. Even President Obama promoted the distribution of federal money to support municipal police departments to this end. Currently, elected officials are tinkering filming police activity through legislation and policy. One of our own, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington D.C., is seeking to limit the power of pictures. Mayor Bowser wants to restrict the public’s access to footage from police body cameras. She is not alone. Legislatures in Texas, Iowa, Kansas, and other states are now taking up the issue. Even the open-minded American Civil Liberties Union is expressing concern regarding what type of footage should be available to media and other members of the public.

All of this is fine and well, but cameras are neither the problem nor the solution. Cameras will not stop our slaughter. As the Eric Garner case indicates, cameras may not even lead to an indictment. We still await the outcome of the Walter Scott case where charges have at least been filed against former officer Michael T. Slager. We still don’t know what happened to Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal cord injury he sustained while under arrest, though the city proposed a police body camera pilot program in Frebruary.

Curbing the wanton and disproportionate number of murders of citizens of color and from impoverished communities is what is called for. This can be done. Believe it or not there are communities where law enforcement leaders are committed to honoring #BlackLivesMatter through the employment of anti-racism training and internal policies that enhance cultural competencies of officers.

Now, let me be clear, I am by no means suggesting that these police departments are perfect. I am not. I put these examples forward as a demonstration of what is possible and as evidence of “progress” within caring communities. Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon, and the City of Saint Paul, Minnesota are working with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity. The Haas Institute and the Alliance on Race & Equity share the objective “to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all.”

Equity requires an end to White Supremacy and White Privilege. Equity calls for the recognition of the value of all life including, of course, the lives of African Americans. Equity also calls for the elimination of varying and disparate standards in the treatment and punishment of alleged offenders of crime—civilian and police. Through their work with the Haas Institute and the Alliance, the police departments of note are altering their hiring practices, employing community policing and outreach, instituting anti-racism training and appropriate zero-tolerance policies to cultivate cultures that reflect equitable treatment of all people.

Communities that commit to equity will have the power needed to end mass incarceration, police brutality, intra-ethnic violence, economic injustice, and all sorts of social problems. Citizens must organize for equity. Then, citizens must elect representatives with a demand for administration of equitable policies and solutions. When this is done, social progress will be made.

Cameras provide important evidence of crime, but they are only tools for recording. If we give the issue of cameras more time, energy, and weight than we ought, they become a distraction from the real issue—unchecked “xenophobia and oppression”—the hatred and fear of black, brown, and poor people. Hatred, fear, and a complete disregard for the value of human life lies at the root of our present problem. When all lives are seen as worthy and murderers are charged and adjudicated justly, then and only then, will we as a society solve the problem which #BlackLivesMatter necessarily brings to our attention. #StayWoke.

Photo: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min., (ABD), is a minister, councilwoman, author, and animation producer. She recently completed her dissertation on sex and sexuality in the African American Baptist Church and a manuscript on legal, religious, and political rhetoric pertinent to “race.” Follow her @HumanStriving and on SoundCloud.com/Reverend-Leah-CK-Lewis.

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