In the wake of the shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last week, a petition aimed at reforming the way police around the country operate has gained over 100,000 signatures. Submitted through the Obama administration’s We the People petition site, the petition urges the president to push for federal legislation requiring all police officers in the country to wear body-mounted cameras at all times.
The petition, in its entirety, reads:
“Create a bill, sign into law, and set aside funds to require all state,county, and local police, to wear a camera. Due to the latest accounts of deadly encounters with police, We the People, petition for the Mike Brown Law. Create a bill, sign into law, and set aside funds to require all state,county, and local police, to wear a camera.The law shall be made in an effort to not only detour police misconduct(i.e. brutality, profiling, abuse of power), but to ensure that all police are following procedure, and to remove all question, from normally questionable police encounters. As well, as help to hold all parties within a police investigation, accountable for their actions.”
The White House has pledged to publicly respond to petitions with over 100,000 signatures, although the actual response rate has actually fallen well short of that.
A similar petition has also popped up on Change.org, but it has not attracted nearly the same level of support.
While most We the People petitions are considered successful if they’re rise to the level of even receiving a canned, boilerplate response from the administration, there have been examples of petitions sparking lawmakers to action. The most high-profile is a bill making it legal for consumers in the United States to unlock their cellphones, an issue that’s generated over 22 million signatures on more the 350,000 separate petitions since 2011. The cellphone unlocking bill was signed into law by President Obama earlier this month.
As millions of people around the world have turned to social media for news about the ongoing protests that have rocked the St. Louis suburb, there’s been a growing chorus of both politicians and members of the public calling for much-needed reforms in the way police in the United States operate. While much of the attention as turned to the issue of police militarization—the application of military-style weaponry and paramilitary tactics to everyday law enforcement activities—there’s also been a growing demand for the expansion of programs attaching always-on body cameras to police officers.
The logic behind equipping cops with cameras is relatively straightforward—knowing that they’re being watched makes everyone involved behave better. When on camera, cops are less likely to use violence against suspects unnecessarily, and suspects are less likely to provoke police officers or generally misbehave when they know video being taken by the offer can be used against them in court.
There is a growing body of evidence that these positive effects are more than just hypothetical. Two years ago, the Southern California city of Rialto, located about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, put cameras on its entire police force. In just the first year following the cameras’ introduction, civilian complaints against offers in Rialto dropped by 88 percent and instances of police using force against civilians fell by 60 percent.
“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Rialto police chief William Farrar told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”
These programs may soon be coming to larger, more high-profile police departments as well.
In the wake of a recent incident where a New York Police Department officer strangled an African-American man to death while restraining him in a chokehold, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James called for the NYPD to institute a pilot program where 15 percent of on-duty officers, stationed in areas with the highest rates of civilian complaints, would wear cameras. While former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed the idea, calling it ?a nightmare,” current NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has been publicly supportive, labeling it, ?the direction where American policing is going.”
The Los Angeles Police Department is well ahead of its East Coast counterpart, having begun rolling out cameras worn by some of its officers in January of this year. On Monday, the Dallas Police Association called for the Texas city’s police department to equip all of its officers with cameras to aid in shooting investigations.
In the context of the ongoing crisis in Ferguson, the call for police body cameras takes on a particularly pointed relevance. The accounts of the police officers who were on the scene at the time Brown was killed differ significantly from those of bystanders who witnessed the event. Body cameras would likely have cleared that up rather definitively.
While the Ferguson police department doesn’t have any body cameras, it does have two cameras that can be affixed to the dashboard of police cruisers. Neither of them were installed and operational at the time of the shooting.
Additionally, as the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a no-fly zone over the city (which has had the effect of grounding all news helicopters) and law enforcement officials have detained reporters covering the events on the ground, many have charged that officials are attempting to censor media getting out of the city and providing a check on police activity. Body cameras on cops would likely clear that issue up as well.
At the same time, the threat of public exposure doesn’t seem to be having an enormous effect on what law enforcement officials are doing in Ferguson.
Over the weekend, a police officer in Ferguson threatened to kill a livesteaming journalist while his broadcast was being beamed in real time to the Internet. Police in Ferguson even attempted to shut down a live television broadcast by CNN’s Don Lemon as it was happening.
USA Today reports that shares of Taser—a company best known for stun guns but is also a leading manufacturer of police body cameras—has seen its shares increased by 15 percent over the past two days as investors predict an increased demand for the cameras.
Photo by Charles de Jesus/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)