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A Minneapolis Police Department officer wears a body camera while responding to a call. Photo by Tony Webster from Minneapolis.

The Case Against Bodycams

Written by
July 26, 2020
The Case Against Bodycams
A Minneapolis Police Department officer wears a body camera while responding to a call. Photo by Tony Webster from Minneapolis.

Peterborough-Nogojiwanong has taken up the fight for Black Lives with the rest of the world, and is meeting considerable resistance. Within the last two months, the movement has discovered that, to no one’s surprise, the Peterborough Police Service (PPS) intends to defend its existence by taking up financial resources that would be better allocated to crime prevention agencies than crime apprehension, and that it will happily accept defense equipment from anonymous donors while also running a surplus for several years in a row. City Council members on the PPS board are also proving difficult: Ashburnham ward Councillor Gary Baldwin has declared himself as firmly against defunding the PPS while returning emails from Black Lives Matter Peterborough-Nogojiwanong's Digital Direct Action event on Tuesday July 21, while Mayor Diane Therrien finds herself struggling to fight off defeatism and enact the progressive values that her mayoral campaign and track record as a Town ward City Councillor would suggest she holds.

To their credit, the PPS and its board members have been forthcoming about the details of the PPS budget. As previously reported, approximately 90 percent of the PPS budget goes towards salaries. Salaries have been generally regarded by those involved as non-negotiable because of the Peterborough Police Association, so focus should go toward the remaining 10 percent allocated for Operations, the Strategic Plan, and PPS Capital spending. In its 2017-2019 Business Plan, the PPS expressed intention to equip its officers with body-worn cameras (colloquially and herein referred to as “bodycams”). In light of recent events, this reform has returned to public discourse.

Certainly if you’ve been seriously engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement you’ve encountered the debate between police reform and police abolition. Put very simply, police reform advocates for changes in the way that police operate to decrease police-involved deaths and that accountability processes are laid out to improve police-community relations. Police abolition, however, advocates for reallocating resources and reimagining community care to prevent the need for and existence of policing and carceral institutions. The goal of abolition is self-evident: these practices and institutions must be abolished to prevent further harm.

However, what is less commonly considered is the interrelationship between police reform and abolition. Prominent thinkers in the abolitionist movement have been receptive to criticism from both the political left and right, especially with regards to timeline or project speed. You will be hard pressed to find an abolitionist who believes that it can be done “overnight” as many strawman arguments tend to suggest (though of course seizing the present circumstances is useful to hasten things). Reform has a place in abolition, if only executed with care. Leaders in abolition call these “non-reformist reforms,” or reforms that do not perpetuate or legitimize the system that is being abolished. In fact, non-reformist reforms often challenge and actively undermine the system that they target. Conversely, “reformist reforms” leave the targeted system intact while changing processes and language within and around it. More often than not, reformist reforms actually involve an expansion of the system of which they are critical. As you may be able to glean, non-reformist reforms are desirable for abolitionists, while reformist reforms are not.

Many abolitionists use a matrix of questions to evaluate whether a proposed solution may be a reformist reform rather than a non-reformist reform. On the topic of police abolition, organizer Mariame Kaba offers four questions to consider. Let’s apply them to bodycams in Peterborough:

“Are the proposed reforms allocating more money to the police?”

Bodycams are always a financial question, because adoption of new technologies is always a financial question. Money is needed to get the cameras, as the PPS knows and has drafted for in its 2021 budget, but money is also needed to keep those cameras on and up-to-date in a technology sector that is continuously innovating and making older models obsolete. Money is needed to have that footage reviewed, archived and maintained. Money is even needed to draft and pass internal policies regarding the use of those bodycams. This runs exactly counter to defunding the police (which is not a metaphor or hyperbole, by the way), as it does not increase the maximum funding cut possible at any single given time. It adds more resources to a system that needs to be shrunk rather than expanded. And it is not a one-time ask. This will be an ongoing cost, and the PPS knows this: in its 2020 Budget presentation it cites renewal of equipment as the driver for a capital budget increase, with “digital technology security” as the most costly.

“Are the proposed reforms advocating for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like ‘community policing’ run out of regular police districts)?”

Bodycams are routinely advocated for under the guise of “providing accountability” and “producing evidence,” particularly around “officer intent.” However, these come with the cost of extending the surveillance state, or a state that is governed through surveillance power. Since police officers are state actors insofar as they uphold state law, this seems an accurate assessment. This, of course, should not come as a surprise, since police in both the United States and Canada (yes, both) have been preoccupied with controlling Black people through surveillance and spectacle since their inception; a rather common tale of colonial and imperial states. While prisons are monuments of state surveillance (and a reformist reform themselves), bodycams present an opportunity to expand that territory by turning all that encounter them into suspects or accomplices. By expanding both the surface area and the number of state actors doing surveillance work, policing is expanded. Again, this runs counter to ending policing.

“Are the proposed reforms primarily technology-focused?”

This is a given for bodycams. Kaba writes that technology-focused reforms must be opposed because, as previously discussed, more money will be given to the police. She also has concerns that were briefly addressed above: “Said technology is more likely to be turned against the public than it is to be used against cops.” This is also accidentally confirmed by PPS Chief Scott Gilbert in comments to Peterborough This Week, who says there is value for “both sides” of the police-community relationship.

Finally, Kaba states, “Police violence won’t end through technological advances (no matter what someone is selling you).” This rings true. While Chief Gilbert insists that bodycams have “inestimable” value, various studies have actually given estimates. And the estimates are low: a randomized control trial suggests that bodycams have been overestimated in their ability to “induce large-scale behavioral changes in policing.” And systematic analysis of bodycam footage merely confirms what is already known: that officers interact with Black community members differently than their white counterparts, down to the way that they speak. On the topic of “selling,” while certainly police themselves are salespeople for bodycams, there also begs the question: which manufacturers stand to benefit from a city (or a whole country, potentially) adopting bodycams? And what has been their role with regards to lobbying elected representatives?

“Are the proposed ‘reforms’ focused on individual dialogues with individual cops? And will these ‘dialogues’ be funded with tax dollars?”

Bodycams are meant to be worn by individual officers to determine how each officer is handling an interaction with community members, implying that individual officers that behave poorly or “bad apples” will be reprimanded. However, this perpetuates the myth that racism is a personal moral failing in behaviour rather than an issue (or, considering an abolitionist point of view, a feature) of the systems with which people are meant to live and interact. Racism is enshrined in structures like law and “justice,” education, government, and medicine. Even if you replace all the people in that system with “better people,” it will still enact racist violence. This has been a difficult concept for people to grasp, especially us aggressively friendly and polite Canadians. Removing a few bad apples does nothing to fix a rotten orchard, but framing this as a possible and desirable outcome allows the PPS and other police departments to slap their officers on the wrists while paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

This is merely an application of Kaba’s questions about police-related reforms being presented. There are plenty of more broad, conceptual questions about reform or non-reformist reform that can guide analysis, like “Will this have to be undone later?” (in this case, yes); and “Does this provide room or opportunity for new relationships and processes to occur?” (no).

All of this of course also completely sidelines the conversation about why seeing videos of violence against and death of Black and Indigenous people is genuinely desirable. There are tons of questions about technology, and particularly image-capture technology like photography and video, and how it is treated as conveying “objective truth” or “reality;” how these technologies are trusted more than Black and Indigenous people speaking their truths; and how these technologies stand in for a white person's gaze when they cannot be physically present there to see the atrocities. Scholar Zoé Samudzi writes, “From a distance, it seems like enduring the brutality of these videos is a badge of honor, an assumption of apparently anti-racist political responsibility…. This is at best ignorant-naïve liberal projection, and at worst, complete mythology.” Put simply, she concludes that whether to invoke feelings of nostalgia or of reassurance, circulating these videos continues the tradition of white people witnessing lynchings as community events that create make whiteness comprehensible; as an opportunity to understand either their supposed superiority to Black people, or their moral superiority to those "other" white people who are explicitly racist (which allows them to continue to be more covertly or palatably racist instead). Though Samudzi writes about it in the context of viral videos like those recording George Floyd's death (and Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, and Eric Garner, and Laquan McDonald, and Rodney King), it seems necessary to be concerned about the institutional demand to produce and retain these images in the “justice” system, and even more so from the point of view of the police. A study from 2019 suggests that bodycam footage makes it more difficult for viewers to understand the wearer’s intentions relative to dashcam footage (which also fails the non-reformist reform test here, alas), thereby increasing reliance on the officer’s interpretation of events depicted or not.

“Ultimately, the only way that we will address oppressive policing is to abolish the police,” writes Kaba. “Therefore all of the ‘reforms’ that focus on strengthening the police or “morphing” policing into something more invisible but still as deadly should be opposed.” If the PPS is to be believed when it suggests that only 10 percent of the budget can be up for debate right now, then it seems worthwhile to meet them where they are at and challenge them every step of the way.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish