' Katherine Klein | MTTLR

The Watchers Still Aren’t Being Watched: Body Cameras and the Continued Problems of Police Accountability

The number of people shot and killed by police officers in the past several years is disturbingly consistent: 987 in 2017, 992 in 2018, 1004 in 2019. People of color and those with mental illnesses are disproportionately the victims. Body cameras worn by law enforcement have been suggested as a way to impose accountability on otherwise unchecked police power. But while body cameras do have the potential to curb law enforcement’s use of excessive force, the lack of consistent policies across agencies could undermine police accountability and at the same time impede citizens’ right to privacy.   There is no nationwide standard governing when body cameras should be turned on and off. Even within individual states, body camera policies can be highly variable. In Denver, a policy clearly outlines when an officer must be recording, while in Colorado Springs, an officer has complete discretion over when his or her body camera is recording.   Even when there are policies in place that dictate body camera filming policies, accountability can still be subverted. In a recent deposition, Little Rock, Arkansas Police Captain Heath Helton was questioned about multiple use-of-force allegations involving Little Rock officers. During these incidents, the officers turned off their body cameras before the excessive force could be caught on-camera, in violation of department policy. The involved officers were found to have violated the policy requiring them to have captured the incident, but were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing in regards to the excessive force allegations because in the absence of body camera footage there was corroborating evidence. If there are no real consequences for violating body camera policies,...