Beyond Body Cameras

There’s a debate going on over the merits of police using body cameras while on the job. At this point I’m not convinced one way or the other on the long terms benefits.

The advantages are obvious: audio/visual recordings of the kinds of encounters that have left several Black men dead at the hands of White police officers in the last several months would give us something other than the killer’s word to go on. A public parsing of what exactly went down between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson has taken up a lot of the oxygen in the room while yielding relatively little new insight. Rather than arguing over policing policy, the war on drugs, or the legal system in which the aftermath of them is adjudicated, a lot of time and energy has been invested in one theory or another about what really happened.

And in the instance of Eric Garner, a video showing how he was killed has been crucial in expanding the coalition of people who think reforms of one kind or another are urgent. It’s not as if the police only just started killing people with impunity. If it weren’t for the fact that so many shootings have happened on video this year, I doubt it would still be the national story it has recently become.

I am not interested in aiding the growth of state surveillance, however. And I also agree that body cameras are not un-problematic when it comes to issues of privacy, not just for the public at large but also for the individual officers who would end up being required to wear them. The tragedies and injustice on display here are systemic, and go far beyond the agents tasked with enforcing that system.

Which is why not getting derailed by the body camera question is more important than whatever the particular cost-benefit analysis turns out to be. The President is working to secure the funding necessary to eat half the cost of supplying police departments with cameras. That’s, for the moment at least, a distraction. It doesn’t come close to rectifying widespread inequality before the law. It’s an embarrassing attempt at appeasement and shamefully inadequate. To support this limited action is to accept the possibilities allowed by the current regime instead of asserting new ones. Even if you’re for putting a body cam on ever cop, now is not the time to be for putting a body cam on every cop. It’s too early to tacitly admit defeat and settle for so little.

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114 thoughts on “Beyond Body Cameras

    • Can you expand? Why do you say this?

      I am trying to think of examples of state-recorded crimes, and the only thing I can think of is that Nixon’s recordings didn’t save his ass, or set a precedent that what he pulled was lawful.

      Or the release of military drone videos from the ME, where the actions may or may not have been deemed ‘lawful’; but a discussion was generated from the videos, and it is in part that discussion that helps set future precedent.

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      • If the assumption is that cops in Staten Island will use choke holds again in the future and point to this case as precedent, I admit that the thought hadn’t occurred to me and now I find it pretty disturbing.

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      • – yeah, but the precedent has been established by nothing happening to the cop, not by the fact that his actions were recorded. That is, the *case* established the precedent, and would have even had there been no camera.

        Unless you mean cops will realize “man, I can walk away even AFTER I choke a guy to death *on camera*…wonder what ELSE I can get away with?”

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      • I think that absent a video, the police officer would claim he didn’t use the banned chokehold. I base this on the fact that the officer in question made that claim *with* a video.

        Without a video, there would have been even more uncertainty and discussion about exactly what the officer did, and whether or not he used a chokehold, but a reasonable NYPD officer might still have thought that actually getting caught using the banned maneouver could get him/her in hot water. With the video and the outcome of this case, s/he now probably thinks that’s less likely.

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  1. Even if body cameras don’t reduce the number of instances of this happening – and there is plenty of reason to believe it will – it does, as you allude, expand the coalition of people who see the problem. With Brown, there is endless debate over what did and did not happen. Here? A lot less debate. The more we can prevent the apologists from concocting scenarios where excessive force is justified, the more we can talk about how the force is not justified in the scenarios where it’s happening. Like Garner. Which in turn makes the civil rights arguments better.

    I don’t think that privacy concerns outstrip this. I think those arguing that this proves that body cameras won’t help are using a counterproductive threshold of success. That if it doesn’t stop all of them, or lead to indictments convictions in all cases, that it’s useless or nigh-useless.

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  2. Cops have no personal privacy “on the job”. As such, it’s legal to film them. Having their employer require them to wear cameras is perfectly legal. That film, and the cameras from the phones the bystanders have, will provide a much clearer picture of scenarios like we’ve been discussing.

    However, that being said, David Ryan is right. Cops/DAs will still work to bend the system to their own benefit, so we need to make sure that the public has easy access to these videos and we need to change the culture of the LEO/DA community so that they are encourage to drive the problem children out. Perhaps those in the legal community can recommend solutions to my last comment?

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    • For my part, I’m much more willing to ascribe potential guilt to a cop who’s been wearing a camera, if he’s been accused. Just for the idea that the accuser knows there’s going to be an impartial witness there.

      (this prevents false accusations, though I don’t know how many there are, I can see a lot being filed just to mess with cops — after all,if you’re in jail, what better things do you have to do?)

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    • Note what it says in the article I linked:
      at least in PA, cops can’t record where folks have a reasonable expectation of privacy (read inside people’s houses).

      Still, most of the incidents appear to be cops reacting inappropriately on the streets (I’m including the taser accidents I’ve heard about — the ones where someone died).

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    • I’ve never really gotten the “privacy” aspect of this either. Plenty of employees at different firms spend their whole workday under video and audio surveillance and we don’t flip out about that.

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      • But then you aren’t legally authorized to use force on behalf of the state, are you? Cops are in a special legal situation because their job gives them so many chances to misbehave with impunity that simply aren’t available to civilians, and when they do misbehave, it has a legal and constitutional significance because they are the armed agents of the state. Given all that, I have exactly zero respect for the privacy interests of on-duty police.

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      • I’m not talking about the front door camera that sees you once. I’m talking about the cameras that watch a lot of employees for every moment they’re working. Shifting the comparison to the front door camera to minimize it is not going to work.

        Sure, there are no data retention or public access laws for those cameras, but by the same token, there are no laws at all that limit what the owners of those cameras can do with them. Who gets to see the footage? Anybody the owners want. Does it get uploaded to the Internet? Sure, if they like. Uploading “The Best of Employees Picking Their Noses on Security Camera, Volume 2” to YouTube is, to my knowledge, totally legal if you’re the owner of the business and the employees know that there are cameras there.

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      • “Uploading “The Best of Employees Picking Their Noses on Security Camera, Volume 2? to YouTube is, to my knowledge, totally legal if you’re the owner of the business and the employees know that there are cameras there.”

        Actually no, it generally isn’t, unless those employees explicitly signed a release for video footage of themselves to be publicly distributed. Most states have right-to-privacy laws that allow control of image, likeness, voice, and so on.

        I suppose the employer could make signing such a release a condition of employment, but that sounds like one of those “can your boss say ‘have sex or you’re fired’ ” things.

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      • Actually no, it generally isn’t, unless those employees explicitly signed a release for video footage of themselves to be publicly distributed.

        How sure are you about those limitations? I know that there are rules for commercial use of somebody’s image, and I know that there are tons of rules for covert surveillance, but if everybody knows and agrees that there are cameras, I’m not aware of much in the way of legal protection. From what I’ve been able to gather, footage from overt recordings tends to be treated a lot more like footage from public places.

        I suppose the employer could make signing such a release a condition of employment, but that sounds like one of those “can your boss say ‘have sex or you’re fired’ ” things.

        I’d put it more in the category of, “Give us your facebook password.” Some employers have the balls to ask for just about anything as a condition of employment. Even use of the footage without permission is severely legally restricted, it’s easy enough to put it all into the pile of boilerplate that goes into an employee manual if the employer wants it.

        All this isn’t to say that I’m in favor of those recordings being open public records. It’s just that the officer’s privacy while at work means just slightly more than jack squat to me. I’m more concerned about having private citizens’ interactions with the police being available for snooping without a good reason. Cops are privy to some seriously private stuff, so the have to be protections there. I’d be all for a policy of the video being locked down and only retrievable by the parties listed in the report or by a court order. But the “no video” solution doesn’t seem like a winner.

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    • Cops have no personal privacy “on the job”. As such, it’s legal to film them.

      Sadly, that wasn’t true here in Illinois until just recently. Someone could be charged with a felony for filming a cop while the cop was in the line of duty. The legislature just a few days ago legalized it (although I believe a court ruled it unconstitutional, but again, that ruling was quite recent).

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  3. 1. Will points to the evidence that shows that police with body cameras (and strict force compliance policies) generally are less likely to commit actions that can be deemed police brutality and violent.

    2. There is a seemingly interesting split among the left and libertarians about whether police cameras are good or not.

    3. The Gardner case raises an interesting question about whether there is a difference between the police wearing their cameras and the police just happening to be recorded and seems to suggest yes there is a difference. IIRC there was a case a few years ago where an NYC officer was caught beating a homeless man on a security camera. The homeless man was given permission by a pastor or someone else to sleep where he was sleeping.

    4. My conclusion from #3 is that there is some kind of psychological effect to knowing you are being recorded by your own superiors and the reasons for it are to prevent excessive violence. It is like a constant performance evaluation perhaps.

    5. Another debate I’ve seen involves lamentations about how college graduates usually do not want to become police officers (there are also studies that show police officers with college degrees are not as likely to use excessive or deadly force) and whether we should basically turned police officers into armed social workers.

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    • Where do you see the split you describe in #2? I personally can see why a libertarian or a liberal could consistently support or oppose or be ambivalent about body cameras.

      For #5, I think cops already are and have been for a long time armed social workers. But of course, that doesn’t mean the debate you describe isn’t real or isn’t good to have.

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  4. I’ll quote what my brother wrote on my Facebook feed:

    In Michael Brown’s case, much of the public will uncritically accept the policeman’s account when they want to. In the Garner case, that’s quite a lot harder and the lack of indictment seems even less justified. This is still enough of a democracy that mobilizing public opinion can matter. So “yes” to cameras, even when their evidence is ignored. ESPECIALLY when their evidence is ignored.

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  5. And heck, the guy who pepper-sprayed those students at UC Davis back in the Occupy days? He was on video doing that, he admitted that he used a non-officially-provided sprayer in an illegal manner, and the unions still went to the mattresses to keep him working. It took six months to get him “fired” (the deal they actually worked out was that he voluntarily quit; nobody can say that he was fired for misconduct) and he ended up filing a worker’s comp claim for almost forty thousand dollars–which he received. (All that mental trauma after the incident, you know.)

    And yet. I still think I’d rather have ineffective cameras than no cameras at all.

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    • I’m very much of the opinion that police unions need to be gutted & stripped of power. The union can step in and go to bat for an officer involved in a departmental policy conflict (like reporting overtime), but if the issue is officer vs. private citizen, the union should be basically told to shut up & go sit in the corner.

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      • Yes, exactly. The Union represents the employees to the employer. The employer represents the Department to the Public. If the Union has an issue with how the Department has related to the Public, they can take it up with the employer through the contract-negotiated methods (file a grievance or a lawsuit, or whatever).

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      • It’s never going to happen as long as we’re asking people to take the personal risk of spending one’s life as a police officer. Police unions have power because they’re a union, and intend to withhold their services if certain demands aren’t met. You could threaten to radically gut them (strikes are already illegal) and threaten to enforce that law with scabs – scabs who will be being asked to fight a police force that has just been liquidated on the principle of eventually denying the new force (which might be them if they’re lucky?) the ability to organize to provide a defense to officers facing grab sanction. You’re basically inviting civil skirmish at that point. And what politician would set themselves against a group so generally trusted” (56% “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” another 30% “some”) and relied upon as police?

        It’s better to try to slowly ratchet up the accountability that our systems for providing it provide, forcing it out of the unions bit by bit. A frontal assault on the unions themselves would be pointless and risk instability, which might well backlash among the public into greater trust for police. The people who are police will always band together and condition their risk taking on certain demands, whether you allow them to call themselves a union or not. You’re not going to undo that. You need to try to move those demands in the direction you need them to go, gradually if as steadily as possible.

        Beyond that, I can’t for my own part imagine asking people to serve as police officers while denying them the right to form an association to collectively provide strong representation in criminal, civil, and bureaucratic/professional proceedings in which their official actions are reviewed, with stakes up to and including conviction for felonies and attending deprivation of liberty. To me, if we’re going to ask people to be police officers, then we’re choosing to create a group of people with a common interest in protecting police officers. We have to set up systems of accountability that are strong enough to contend with this fact. There’s no reason to believe that’s not possible. We’re just not doing it.

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      • You can’t, in other words, tell a person what lawyer they can;t or can;t have in the proceeding you’ve just taken out against them seeking to send them to prison. You can’t tell an advocacy group that is formed on their behalf to shut up in the public square about what’s happening. You just have to fight them and try to win.

        , as far as I can tell, things like filing grievances, lawsuits, press releases, and providing criminal defense are the kinds of things MRS is saying police unions needs to be barred from doing. That is, after all, how they wield the kind of power he’s trying to strip from them. It’s just not doable.

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      • Last time I checked, the military has no union of any kind, it’s members endure considerably more danger & hardship, and yet it has lots of people who stay in for life despite it.

        No other union in the US provides criminal legal defense to it’s members. I think many offer civil defense, which is fine, but only cops get criminal defense, which I find to be something of a conflict of interest & well beyond the scope of the function of a union in securing something of fairness for it’s members.

        None of that is to say I disagree with you as to how unlikely we are to untangle that knot anytime soon absent an upsetting event. One thing we could start with is doing away with the Police Officers Bill of Rights, and the like, which affords officers rights & protections in criminal investigations we private citizens don’t enjoy.

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      • Providing legal defense is a big and important thing unions offer. Cops would be stupid to give that up and i’m not sure i’ve seen a proposal on how to change that which makes sense. Cops, reasonably, might need legal defense in the course of their work even when they do it correctly. Who is supposed to provide that defense; the DA’s office…well that wouldn’t work if they are the ones prosecuting the cop; the town/city the cop works for…that is back to the DA unless the city hires a lawyer for the cop, the AG….same problem. It seems to make sense to have unions be the provider of legal services for cops. Cops deserve appropriate, zealous legal defense ( yes yes i know that makes me a defender or murderers and all the horrors that cops do) It is best if cops get their own lawyers, through their union. Less conflict of interest that the state or city doing it if they are also the ones prosecuting them.

        It is not even remotely reasonable to expect cops to individually provide for their own criminal defense for things they do in their line of duty. Given the work they do, even when they do it completely correctly, they expose themselves to risk and deal with criminals. Nuisance lawsuits happen, if a cop has to defend themselves out of their own pocket for any potential thing done in the line duty no one with any sense would ever do the job.

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      • Read over what you just wrote again. Almost every instance of trouble a cop might get into you reference or allude to is a civil suit, not a criminal one. I have no issue with police unions offering civil defense, and agree with you that such is arguably a good thing.

        If a cop does their job right, there is almost zero reason to believe they should regularly, if ever, face a criminal charge. Hell, most cops who do it blindingly wrong ever face a criminal charge.

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      • Cops can face all sorts of accusations as part of their job. I’m very much not a cop but i do work for a state court in a contentious field( child custody) I’ve been sued once, part of the suit involved about half of the agencies in the state and hand full of cops. The guy who sued us all was somewhere between sanity challenged and really nutz. But he got his day in court which led to the judge saying he had never seen such bizarre behavior including repeatedly faking asthma attacks. Well i don’t have a union but the state AG defended me because i work for the state. And i have immunity from lawsuits based on my job, but i still got sued and had to go throw the procedures to have the case thrown out.

        For cops unions seems to the make the most sense to provide criminal or civil defense. I’m not a particular defender of cops, and i don’t’ think i’m doing that here, but there is conflict of interest in how cops could be prosecuted and how they get their defense. There are problems with cop unions but i don’t think one of them is that they get their lawyers through them. Take away the deference juries and much of the public gives to cops and it wouldn’t matter where they get their lawyers.

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      • Yeah, just going to have to disagree with you regarding criminal defense. However, I will agree that of all the things police unions do to contribute to the problems we have with police, it’s probably a minor point & one that is least likely to be tackled anytime soon.

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      • Here is a great example of the trouble with Police Unions:

        The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association had sued then-Commissioner Ray Kelly for overriding disciplinary provisions in the police contract — including a rule requiring NYPD superiors to wait at least 48 hours before questioning police officers accused of misconduct.

        I don’t care if that is in the contract, it should not even be legal to place such provisions in a contract.

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    • the deal they actually worked out was that he voluntarily quit; nobody can say that he was fired for misconduct

      From what I recall, his last day was on a July 31st. Given the calendar followed by most colleges, that read to me more like “his contract was not renewed” rather than “he quit”.

      Of course, in both cases, nobody can say that he was fired for misconduct…

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  6. It’s too early to tacitly admit defeat and settle for so little.

    Why characterize this as a defeat? Either putting cameras on police officers is an incremental improvement or it is a step backwards. If it is a step backwards, then it’s probably not something that we ought to do.

    If, however, it is an incremental improvement, then it’s not a defeat. Unless you are contending that settling for incremental improvements is, itself, a defeat. And if that is your contention, then how do you we ever move forward? Justice is not generally something that jumps ahead by leaps and bounds. It is a slog.

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    • This. I don’t understand how putting the police under constant surveillance constitutes a defeat. There is no way we can achieve a giant leap to “Justice Achieved!” It’s a slog made up of small steps.

      The end of segregated bus seating in Montgomery was only one step, but it wasn’t a defeat. Only 4 kids being admitted to Little Rock Central was a small step, but not a defeat.

      We can sit around bemoaning the lack of change while we wait for the big complete change, patting ourselves on the back on our purity for not settling for half-measures, or we can grab increments wherever we can manage them.

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    • I get his point: cameras will likely appease enough people that further change to the underlying problem, a problem not at all solved by cameras (as Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and Tamir Rice would tell you, if they could), will be more difficult.

      I’m not sure that I agree with this. That is, I think cameras are a political move, not one that solves many problems (and will likely raise a bunch of new ones), but I don’t know that getting cameras will appease many people.

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      • If cameras mean more data, and more data means better problem-solving (or at least, more opportunities to discuss the problem, and evidential ammunition for those who argue there even IS a problem) then cameras seem all to the good.

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      • And what we’re seeing with the Eric Gardner case is video evidence that is even making the RedState/HotAir folks say “stuff is fished up, man” More cameras are going to make *more* people pay attention to the more fundamental problems in the system. Unless they actually make police interactions more cordial, which is what some trial runs have shown – which itself is a win, and a sufficient victory strictly in the context of the institutions of police forces. (other related institutional failures are a different battle).

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      • Eric Gardner case is video evidence that is even making the RedState/HotAir folks say “stuff is fished up, man”

        Anecdotally, I can tell you that IRL I am starting to hear this sentiment from people far to my right, who are not normally prone to saying it.

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      • Where I think this argument loses me is that more videos of more of these things will strengthen calls to action. It’ll be a lot harder for people who always want to believe the cops to believe in benign explanations when they’re looking at the video. If you want to make further progress, you want video. If you want this to go away, past the short term, this is not the compromise you make.

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      • Given what I’ve seen in the Tamir Rice case, the Garner case hasn’t changed the way people think generally.

        Maybe I’m too cynical, and I have no doubt that cameras will help with some individual cases, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that people, white people at least, are starting to believe the system needs serious work.

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      • Don’t get me wrong, I think cameras are necessary. Hell, I’d put cameras pointing in every direction on cops. I just don’t think cameras will solve the most important problems, and I understand the worry that cameras will cause white people to think the most important problem has been solved, and stop paying attention again.

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      • I kind of get it as well, but it seems like begging the question. The key question is: are cameras on cops a net positive, because they bring more accountability, or a net loss, because they are a distraction from some other measure(s)?

        If the argument is that “cameras may be a net gain, but not enough, so why bother,” that seems, as says, a not to purity over actual progress.

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      • I just don’t think cameras will solve the most important problems,

        Who is arguing they will? And is there any logic to being hesitant about improvements because they only help solve “a” problem instead of “the most important problems,” when we don’t actually any such have clear solutions on tap?

        and I understand the worry that cameras will cause white people to think the most important problem has been solved, and stop paying attention again.

        Is there any concrete proposal you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, launch that charge against?

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      • I tend to think that cameras will lead to more accountability as well. But like , I absolutely understand looking at the Garner case and fearing that if the focus in the aftermath of Brown & Garner is just on getting cameras, and that if they are made universal (I don’t think Obama’s funding bil is going anywhere, so i don;t really think that’s much of a danger) or even f not, that this moment will pass without a reckoning of really why accountability for thiese incidents is not happening. The theory is that the cameras will make it so that even if the moment passes, long-term pressure for accountability will go up and continue to increase over time. But you can’t be sure. And there is an argument that the problem isn;t really the lack of video evidence (again, buttressed by the Garner result.)

        So if it’s the case that a necessary, larger reckoning stemming from this moment is/was possible (specifically relating to the legal processes for police accountability), and that a focus on cameras would displace that, and that cameras wouldn’t then lead to that reckoning themselves, then it could be argued that the focus of cameras was a net loss from what was possible to wring out of that moment. It wouldn’t just be a question of whether the cameras alone would be too little to get, therefore not worth having. If they’re the best that can be gotten, then obviously we should get them. But if there’s an opportunity cost to them that could potentially be greater in value than widespread cameras themselves would be (accounting for the possibility that they would/wouldn’t lead to recovery of said cost, which I don;t think we can know, which is what makes it a tough call), namely reform to the accountability systems for polio officers, then it’s possible that a focus on cameras alone at this time, or a set of foci that resulted only in getting cameras when a larger gain was possible that can;t be recovered, then, yes, it’s possible you could be looking at a net loss from that choice. But it depends on the choice of focus actually leading to not getting something that was otherwise gettable, and that thing not being gettable/recoverable through the route that was chosen.

        –Whew!–

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      • Is there any concrete proposal you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, launch that charge against?

        For me, certainly removing the prosecution of police for misconduct on the job from the jurisdiction of the regular DAs and GJs and appointing special prosecutors for the job, or studying how to set up another structure that would be even more institutionally independent from police.

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    • Even though the criminal charges failed, that video is going to be front and center in a major civil suit. Part of that slow grind will likely be a lot more expensive civil judgments against police departments–at least until police chiefs whose departments cost their city a lot of lawsuit money start getting canned and replaced by people who can get a handle on the officers. I’m very optimistic about the slow and steady pressure that even that level of accountability will apply.

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      • Police departments are already costing their cities huge sums of money, and no one in city government seems to be complaining. This is largely because complaining about such things is politically damaging. Maybe that will change, but the huge settlements of the last few years haven’t produced any noticable change in cop or government behavior.

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      • Can you quantify that, though? It’s pretty easy to get a good settlement on a he-said/she-said type lawsuit if your accuser has limited evidence of wrongdoing. It’s just a question of how much it will cost to defend the case. The settlement cash you pay out when it’s on camera and you’re clearly in the wrong is a different ballgame. Right now I think there are a few big cases that make big money headlines, but the more common result is a small payment that makes the problem go away. Cameras should squash a lot of the false cases and ramp up the cost of the real ones substantially.

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  7. Even if you’re for putting a body cam on ever cop, now is not the time to be for putting a body cam on every cop. It’s too early to tacitly admit defeat and settle for so little.

    Giving the green light to the Doolittle raid and focusing the main effort on the ETO didn’t mean Roosevelt was throwing in the towel after Pearl Harbor.

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  8. Notable in it’s absence is any concrete suggestions of alternative actions to take. “Rectifying widespread inequality before the law” strikes me as of a kin to “Raising awareness” or “Promoting the revolution”. Maybe we could get really indignant and organize a drum circle?

    Also, it’s a delight to see something from you. Always nice to have a healthy commotion even if I disagree with it.

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    • There have been a lot of good suggestions coming out of this (by people who’ve been thinking about police reform for a while). Ways to improve oversight, investigation, training, tactics, and consequences for cops, e.g., on the cop level, but also having some real conversations about race. Tod referred to TNC’s reparations essay in his post the other day, which is all about having the conversations.

      What the murders of Brown and Garner have shown, to a lot of white people (though not enough), is that the police really do treat black people differently. Now’s the time to build on that awareness.

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      • This touches on one of the areas of contention I have seen a lot of with regard to Garner, which is how central to this race is. A lot of people want to focus on the police brutality, a lot of other people want race to be absolutely central.

        My own belief is that, tactically, the stronger the focus on race, the less tangible results will be achieved. Like North, I think, I am skeptical of roping the smaller and difficult issue with the bigger and more intractable one.

        (Please note I am speaking purely on a tactical level. I’m not saying that this isn’t a racial issue.)

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      • I’m not sure you can solve them without addressing the racial component, since that is the cause of much of what we’re talking about. Cops are going to react differently to black people, cameras or no.

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      • Though it would of course be nice if it did, using “solve” as a threshold for success seems to me like an invitation for failure. Even if police (and the rest of us) do continue to see black children and adults as different than white children and adults, fewer killings like this (and less police brutality in general) would, in my view, be a significant victory. While yes, this is a exemplar of a larger issue, it’s an issue unto itself, and not a small one.

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      • A lot of people want to focus on the police brutality, a lot of other people want race to be absolutely central.

        Honestly, I think if you subtract out the incidents of white cops murdering and brutalizing people of color and vulnerable females, there wouldn’t be enough left over to even make you suspect any systemic problem with police brutality at all.

        But purely politically speaking it may be useful to de-emphasize race. More folks need to imagine themselves or a family member on the receiving end of that kind of treatment.

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      • Though it would of course be nice if it did, using “solve” as a threshold for success seems to me like an invitation for failure.

        I am definitely guilty of sometimes using the word “solve”, when what I really mean is “help improve”. So it’s a good reminder to me to be more careful with my terms.

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      • I don’t personally have a beef with Coates suggestion of at least allowing a study on the subject of reparations. He seems to think tilting at that windmill will have salutary effects, mostly along the lines of starting a conversation and raising awareness… wait what do those sound like? I’m cynically skeptical but I have no substantive objection beyond that I doubt it’d achieve what he thinks it would.

        As for police oversight; ya know what’d help achieve that? More cameras and more cops behaving badly in the public eye.

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      • I’m not sure you can solve them without addressing the racial component, since that is the cause of much of what we’re talking about. Cops are going to react differently to black people, cameras or no.

        “Addressing the racial component” is notably lacking any kind of mechanism for achieving it. Yes, cops need to change how they view minorities, but what is going to make that happen?

        Cameras are an actual mechanism that can help us hold police accountable when they get abusive. Yes, they may still treat minorities differently, with more suspicion, less respect, or greater aggressiveness of tone than they treat white people. But if we can reduce the frequency with which they shoot or assault minorities that’s a definite gain.

        I am truly confounded by this apparently wishful thinking that we can set aside the small steps and hope for the big change, without ever there being a clear mrchanism explained for achieving that big change. Talking about desired outcomes without specifying the mechanisms for achieving them is wishful thinking, of no help to any real people. It’s not that it’s wrong as a goal. It’s obviously the goal we should keep moving toward. But there have to be mechanisms for achieving each step toward a goal.

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      • Rod, it’s not just “It could happen to me and mine”… it’s that people are really, really resistant to the idea that racism runs as deeply as it does. To convince them of this is much, much harder than to convince them of the evils of police brutality and that it is something we need to do them about. On something like this, I believe it’s easier to get the support of people who underestimate the degree of racism in law enforcement, than it is to convince them that they are wrong about that.

        I think Jamelle Bouie has it about right, trying to thread between these two things:

        1. Police brutality is a systemic problem that goes beyond how law enforcement treats black folks. It’s not hard to find stories of unarmed white and latino kids getting shot.
        2. The system problem is at crisis levels when it comes to African-Americans.

        I do think it’s important to mention #2. Not just morally, but I think it’s tactically important to emphasize why it is that blacks are so incensed right now. That it’s not just Al Sharpton riling people up. But I think it’s important to say (one way or another) “Hey, you don’t have to like Al Sharpton to be with us on this.”

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      • There have been a lot of good suggestions coming out of this (by people who’ve been thinking about police reform for a while). Ways to improve oversight, investigation, training, tactics, and consequences for cops, e.g., on the cop level, but also having some real conversations about race.

        Are all of these actually good, in the sense of being implementable?

        Improve oversight? We have concrete ideas for doing that.

        Improve training? Concrete ideas for doing so.

        More consequences for cops? They’re already in the law, if we can figure out how to get prosecutors and juries to employ them.

        Real conversations about race? You jumped from concrete to amorphous. What does it mean? How would we implement it? How do you have a real conversation with someone who doesn’t want one? How do you have a real conversation with someone who might be willing to talk, but sets some conditions on it. I’m thinking if your “conversation” with Brooke, where she had a condition which you objected to. Let’s grant your objection as correct, but how did it affect the chance to have a real conversation with her?

        If you want to have real conversations about race, you’re going to need a strategy for overcoming that. Otherwise what you’re really saying is “we need the enemy to cede the battlefield,” and that’s no strategy at all.

        As well, you’re assuming a particular outcome of these conversations. What if we have a real conversation about race, and your side fails to convince their side? Or can it only be a real conversation if they are persuaded? If the latter, haven’t you rigged the definitions in your favor?

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      • Perhaps “solve” is the wrong word, though it’s sad that with a problem so ubiquitous and, as the last few months have taught us white folk, so deadly, “solve” is a word we feel should be avoided.

        However, while again I do not doubt that cameras will help, as the study Tod’s linked a couple times now shows, when white peole see a system that treats black people worse, they like the system better. That may be undermined by the visceral reaction to violence that some videos give us, but overall, I’m not sure cameras even address the racial component, at all. So we may get fewer shootings and fewer unnecessary tasings, and fewer unnecessary rough take downs, of all people, and that’s wonderful, but we’ll still have a deeply dysfunctional relationship between black people and cops that results in, among other things, cops, cameras or no, and white folks, cameras or no, seeing their actions towards black people as justified.

        Seriously, I have a hard time watching the Crawford shooting and thinking it was justified, or the Kajieme Powell shooting and not thinking that there were a hundred ways the cops could have, and should have avoided it, but neither video taped shooting seems to have upset the same people who see the Garner case as a pretty straighforward case of unjustified violence. That’s the problem. And I understand the worry that, if we focus on cameras, people will feel like they can go back to their lives with the comfort that cops will behave now, and only shoot people we think they should have shot, like Crawford and Powell. So Crawford and Powell still die, because we’ve taken the first step and decided that means we’ve crossed the finish line.

        So, cameras in every direction, but remind people constantly that this doesn’t help much, it’s just the start. Next, let’s train and retrain the fuck out of cops.

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      • I wonder if training is really going to do much. I mean, there are white cops, but there are also Asian cops, and Hispanic cops, and black cops, and cops of all races; but when the shooting is questionable, it is almost always a white cop in the hot seat. Hell, most shootings, even the clearly justified ones, involve a white cop. Now I think white folks make up more than 50% of cops, but still, you’d think if it was just a training issue, we’d see other races/ethnicities involved in lethal force encounters.

        Of course, it is possible I have some confirmation bias going on, or the media only headlines stories of white cops doing questionable things. so some actual numbers would be useful. Too bad despite federal law requiring departments do such record keeping & reporting, most departments don’t. Perhaps we could shut off the flow of federal money to departments that can’t provide the data?

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      • MRS,
        http://thefreethoughtproject.com/police-beat-taser-shoot-man-23-times-killing-walking-street/
        White, but no surprise, WV.
        http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Man-Dies-in-Altercation-with-Hollywood-Police-280576372.html
        They’ve got a black guy on the scene.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/07/israel-hernandez-taser_n_4919108.html

        Betting money this cop was Hispanic, judging by the name.

        Tasers get more attention for “omg, nonlethals kill”
        and may be better for “train the damn cop when not to use them”

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      • Mad, training is almost certainly part of it, though I’m sure it’s not all of it.

        The Powell shooting is a great example: a man suspected of stealing cokes and donuts was pacing around a bunch of people who were clearly not feeling threatened, but the cops showed up, jumped out of their vehicle with their guns drawn and pointed, and immediately placed themselves between the suspect and their vehicle. I’ve talked to a couple ex-cops about it, and they’ve both said that they did pretty much everything wrong in that situation. Now, they also lied about what happened, and training can’t help that while video might, but they did everything possible to escalate that situation, and training could help with that.

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      • Mad, definitely agree with you there. Psychologists are beginning to look at the sorts of interventions that might help to overcome instant, intuitive biases, but we’re years away from implementing that at the level of a police training program.

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      • Back in the 1990s, the NYC police department banned choke holds as a matter of policy. Some of the officer comments from then are interesting. I don’t know if the ban is still in effect; I don’t know if the ban has ever been enforced with disciplinary action; I don’t know if the training has ever been changed so that chokes are not taught. Assuming the answer to the first two are yes and no, then the NYPD could solve this particular problem fairly quickly: fire officers who violate the ban, punish officers who could stop someone from applying a choke but don’t.

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      • In my view, “training,” as training, is not enough. It’s one thing to be “trained” and another to be in the mix and in a culture where your partner or your department tell you in many ways, both explicit and implicit, things like, “here’s how we really do things” and “we don’t rat on our own.”

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  9. From my Facebook post this morning:

    In the wake of the Garner decision, people are wondering if the proposed federal program to put cameras on police officers is “worth it” or just another “waste of money” (thanks in no small part to the framing provided by our lovely media, who report things terribly).

    This is phrased something like this: “If a cop can use a forbidden choke hold on somebody on camera and kill him and not even get indicted, what use are cameras?”

    I understand the frustration, absolutely. We cannot rely on anecdotes to drive public policy, however. We need to study things systemically.

    There is limited but positive evidence to indicate that having police officers recorded in their line of duty reduces use of force incidents, decreases the severity of use of force incidents, and reduces the number of citizen complaints about police misconduct (such as this study, here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1596901). There are benefits to the police, in that their testimony can be regarded as *more* credible in normal criminal investigations, and false claims against the police are far less likely to proceed.

    While there are implementation details (the cameras have to be used properly, there needs to be systems in place to ensure this is the case), there is no reason at the present time to suspect that increasing camera use won’t correspond to a larger decrease in both police liability and misuse of authority.

    We absolutely should do this, period. It’s a win. It’s a win, generally, if it decreases false citizen complaints, erroneous testimony, and enables better police behavior with the citizenry overall.

    Even if it doesn’t fix everything. We have to stop thinking about changes as “solutions” and “fixes” where they are magic pixie dust that we can rub on social policy problems and have them go away entirely.

    Complex solutions don’t work that way. The question can’t be “Will this ‘fix’ that, if it doesn’t, why should we do it?” The question should be “Will this address that in a way that makes it better, then why shouldn’t we do it?”

    If the Garner and Brown cases tell us anything about our legal system, they tell us that we have a weak point in how the legal system deals with officers *procedurally* that needs to be addressed.

    I think we knew that already.

    Officer-involved shooting complaints need to be investigated by agencies other than those that employ those officers, held accountable by people who are outside the same direct chain of authority that guides those officers, and those investigations can’t be handled by the same district attorney offices that rely upon those police forces to produce credible evidence in their criminal prosecutions.

    There are too many perverse incentives… a DA can decide not to pursue a police investigation for all sorts of reasons that have to do with their existing relationship with the police.

    This isn’t an insoluble problem. It will require political work, and political will. And we absolutely need to tackle that problem, desperately.

    But that’s not a reason *not* to spend 0.00005% of the budget on recording devices in the meantime.

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    • Personally, I’d like to make the profession of people who are not at work inadmissible.

      What difference should it make to a jury if a guy is a hod-carrier, stockbroker, candlestick-maker, or cop and he shoots a guy in a bar?

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    • I have no doubt off-duty cops shoot people (and then are protected by institutional forces). But hopefully it’s far more rare, than shootings on the clock.

      Also, at least theoretically, when they do so they are acting as individuals, not agents of the state, and the rules governing use of force or the carrying of weapons should be exactly the same for them as for anyone else.

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      • Like I said, I know it happens (wasn’t the guy who shot the guy in the movie theater over texting a cop or an ex-cop?), but I have no idea whether it happens more/less/about equally as often as non-cops doing the shooting; I DO suspect that it happens far less often than on-the-clock cop shootings, since on the clock a cop is presumably encountering volatile situations more regularly.

        In any case, I still maintain that off-the-clock/out-of-uniform carry/shoot rules should be whatever they are for me.

        I want them videotaped because they are agents of the state with, essentially, licenses to kill; I don’t want them videotaped as private citizens, which they also are, especially in their off-hours.

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      • Yeah, that’s 3 cases in the last few months. And it’s just the ones I remembered off the top of my head. I have no doubt there were others.

        Obviously, cops shoot people more on duty, because they’re interacting with people in different ways, and more often, but if cops can a.) carry their service weapons, and b.) feel like they can intervene in potential crimes, then they need to be wearing cameras, on duty or off. If they don’t want to wear cameras off duty, there’s a simple solution: no gun, no intervening. If they carry their gun off duty and intervene without a camera on, they lose their jobs, period.

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      • I raise essentially the same objection that I did with Michael Cain, who wanted always-on cameras.

        If we do this, we are not only intruding into their lives and rights as citizens (breaking down a conceptual distinction I think is important to maintain – we are not just what we do, and we are not one thing all the time under all circumstances) you are also intruding into the lives of people who interact with them out of uniform, and may not realize they are being recorded.

        In fact, I’d go further – I ONLY want cops using cameras when in uniform, because I don’t want Officer Friendly walking through the neighborhood in plainclothes on a fishing expedition so he can surreptitiously grab video evidence to come back later and bust people with.

        When you are interacting with someone in uniform, you should have the full expectation you are on the record, and so are they.

        Out of uniform, you and they are private citizens. I don’t expect every guy who passes me on the street to be taking video of me, and I CERTAINLY don’t want to mandate that agents of the state MUST do so.

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  10. How many people who are advocates of the concept of jury notification are also comfortable with the idea of a jury choosing to ignore video evidence of police misconduct and exonerate and accused officer?

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  11. Try ing again.

    How many people who are advocates of the concept of jury notification nullification are also comfortable with the idea of a jury choosing to ignore video evidence of police misconduct and exonerate and accused officer?

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    • I don’t know if I’m exactly an advocate of jury nullification, but I accept it’s conceptual legitimacy. Given that British juries once were directed his to rule, and only gained their independence by refusing to convict when ordered to do do, a form of jury nullification is baked into the very meaning we attach to the institution today.

      While I’m not comfortable with juries ignoring video evidence, I don’t think it really undermines arguments for jury nullification because 1) juries will ignore other evidence when it suits them to do so and I don’t see why ignoring video evidence is any more or less outrageous, and 2) although I advocate for cameras on cops, I recognize that film can lie, that what it appears to show is not the whole story and isometimes distorts the reality.

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    • I don’t know that I am comfortable with jury nullification, but I know that I am absolutely opposed to depriving people of a portion of their lives and their liberty for certain classes of non-violent offense. I’ve decided that I will never be a part of such a thing, so if asked to serve on a jury in such a case, I would not vote to convict.

      Yes, I know that other people can, and have, used the same logic to acquit people who have committed truly horrible crimes. So no, I’m not really comfortable with jury nullification, but I am less comfortable with the alternative.

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      • This is much my own position. I’m not an advocate in the sense that I think juries should be quick and eager to nullify in many cases, but I think the absence of a capacity for jury nullification is a worse scenario.

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      • Right. I know you’re at least a moderate advocate of jury nullification for possession and use of The Sacrament, my friend: is the possibility (nay, “likelihood”) of a jury nullifying civil rights abuse cases brought by black victims against white cops worth it?

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      • is the possibility (nay, “likelihood”) of a jury nullifying civil rights abuse cases brought by black victims against white cops worth it

        You mean like what grand juries are doing with criminal cases against white cops despite a supposed stigma against jury nullification?

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    • I’m pretty much on board with and here on jury nullification.

      But here’s an idea: why not reform how grand juries work? Require DA’s to disclose exculpatory evidence for all accused, and not just cops (if such disclosure isn’t required already)? Raise the standard of proof necessary for an indictment? Give other protections for all the ham sandwiches brought before it?

      If all persons put up for indictment got the same treatment as the Ferguson officer did, maybe that would be a good outcome of all this.

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  12. I’m surprised that ‘s point above isn’t getting more play than it has from supporters of body cameras here, with some exceptions (such as above* and the OP’s own concerns about citizen privacy) seem to see it only as a win and not with any drawbacks. It’s not just a debate between whether cameras are a big win or just a sop to reform. It’s also a debate on whether this particular reform also threatens to do some damage to citizen privacy and might even empower the police state. I think I support body cameras, because they seem likely to do more good than harm, but it’s not a slam dunk.

    *See Glyph’s excellent (because it’s excellent, but also because I agree with it) comment: “In fact, I’d go further – I ONLY want cops using cameras when in uniform, because I don’t want Officer Friendly walking through the neighborhood in plainclothes on a fishing expedition so he can surreptitiously grab video evidence to come back later and bust people with.”

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  13. A thought from the weekend: On the other hand, if a police officer knows that their interaction will be recorded and scrutinized and reviewed extensively after the fact…then why wouldn’t they be more lenient with nonviolent offenders?

    The story we always hear is “well, you only stopped him because he was black, you say he was violent but that’s just because he was black, you let that guy go for the exact same thing because he was white”. What if we end up with gigabytes of video footage that prove those statements wrong? Do we just quietly lose it because it doesn’t fit the narrative of Racist White Cops?

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    • I’m fairly certain that once we have a statistically significant collection of suspect/officer interaction footage, I’d be shocked if the statistics matched up with the stats we currently have. As you said, people tend to be on their best behavior on camera. Without a doubt, there will be a reduction in violence. Who was causing the now “missing” violence, we’ll likely never know.

      I don’t think that officer behavior and suspect behavior would be equally affected by cameras. The officers always know that they’re being filmed and a lot of suspects probably won’t realize it until they’ve taken a swing. And of course, all else held equal, it’s pretty likely that the set of people being investigated for crimes are more likely to do something dumb like getting violent on camera than the set of people who investigate crimes. So I’d expect cameras to reduce everybody’s tendency to escalate, but I’d expect officer-instigated violence to decline more than suspect-instigated violence. But I don’t think there’s ever going to be a way to figure out what the true proportions were.

      How this fits into everybody’s fantasies about how their preferred political/social narrative will be totally vindicated, I don’t really know.

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