Value of police body cameras limited by lack of transparency

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This screen grab taken from body camera video provided by the Atlanta Police Department shows Rayshard Brooks speaking with Officer Garrett Rolfe in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant, late Friday, June 12, 2020, in Atlanta. Rolfe has been fired following the fatal shooting of Brooks and a second officer has been placed on administrative duty. (Atlanta Police Department via AP)

In the fatal shooting of a black man by police in Atlanta last week, officers' body cameras captured about 40 minutes of footage, but not the critical moments that end with one of them opening fire.

In Oklahoma City, it took police more than a year to release video from the arrest of a man who died in custody. It came out months after the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing, and shows them struggling with the man as he says “I can’t breathe.” One officer replies: “I don’t care.”

Nationwide, police departments have rushed to ramp up the use of body cameras, which have been hailed as a potential equalizer that would show the unvarnished truth of an encounter with officers.

But the cases in Georgia and Oklahoma highlight why the technology's benefit has come into question amid protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and calls for sweeping changes to American law enforcement. With budget crises looming and cries to “defund the police,” some are asking whether the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent to outfit officers with cameras has provided the accountability and transparency expected.

Advocates and officers agree the technology’s broad adoption has been helpful, but its value is dictated by the policies and practices around its use: Cameras improve transparency when departments care about transparency.

“They were going to be a panacea to all of the problems we’re facing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. "Body-worn cameras have their limitations and they’re certainly not a panacea, but they do have valuable uses.”

This month, four Atlanta police officers were fired and criminally charged over an incident in which officers pulled two college students from a car and hit them with stun guns during protests late last month. The police chief, who resigned Saturday, told her staff she expected the footage to reinforce that the officers did the right thing, but it did the opposite.

But that case was unusual. Cameras have largely failed to deliver swift accountability because the release of video is frequently long delayed or denied entirely, said Harlan Yu, executive director at the civil rights and technology nonprofit Upturn. When footage of a controversial incident is released, Yu said, it’s often only after intense public outcry.