Speed Reads

Eric Garner

Eric Garner and the limits of police body cameras

In the wake of several high-profile cases in which police killed unarmed civilians, equipping officers with wearable cameras has emerged as a popular solution for reining in abuse and boosting accountability. Notably, President Obama wants to spend $253 million to outfit the nation's police with 50,000 more of the devices.

Yet as the non-indictment in the Eric Garner chokehold case shows, body cams are hardly a panacea for the problem. There is video evidence of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placing Garner in a chokehold, and Garner gasping, saying, "I can't breathe" before collapsing. An autopsy confirmed Brown died of "compression of the neck," and his death was ruled a homicide.

There are numerous other cases where video evidence of police misconduct did not result in consequences. Most recently, Ohio police avoided charges after killing a man holding a toy gun in a Walmart, despite the presence of security camera footage.

Police are rarely charged with fatal shootings. And even when they are, juries tend to give them broad leeway for on-duty killings; the rate of felony conviction for officers is roughly half that of the general population.

Recording devices can't do much when police tamper with them either, as many Los Angeles Police Department cops did to the audio equipment on their cruisers. And even when footage exists, police can fight to keep it under wraps by claiming it's not public.

That said, there are clear benefits to issuing more cameras to cops. In the most widely cited case study, Rialto, California, saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers one year after deploying body cameras. Police behavior improved, too, with the use of force dropping by 60 percent.

So body cameras can be effective tools for curtailing police misconduct or, failing that, at least for documenting when it occurs. But they alone are not a surefire guarantee of justice in prosecuting that misconduct.