[Content warning: police brutality, suicide/murder, racism]
The tragic and unnecessary death of Sandra Bland in police custody in Waller County, Texas, last week has sparked a firestorm of debate in the United States and internationally. Every aspect of this case is horrific, from the belligerence and brutality of the cop who stopped and arrested Bland for an apparent “failure to signal” right up to the suspicious circumstances in which Bland was found dead in her jail cell, hanging from the ceiling with a garbage bag tied around her throat.
Defenders of the police (yes, they’re still going) argue that the arresting officer acted well within his rights, and contend that Bland’s death is what it seemed to be – a suicide. (They also, disgustingly and in typical fashion, attempt to smear Bland’s character and imply that she in some way had this coming.)
To activists from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and to lots of everyday folks, however, that story smells pretty strongly of bullshit. And indeed, legal experts
One striking aspect of this “debate”, which is frustrating for anybody who’s been opposed to the increased presence of cameras in the public sphere, is how strongly people on all sides lean on the evidence of video surveillance.
At one extreme, we have the police themselves, who claim that the video they’ve released fully exonerates them in Bland’s death. This despite the fact that there’s a six-minute gap in the footage.
Video recorded by the dashcam of the officer who arrested Bland has proved similarly contentious, with many observers alleging that it’s been clearly tampered with. Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay says the evidence of sloppy editing is obvious:
“I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut,” DuVernay posted on Twitter, while linking to an article by journalist Ben Norton listing what appears to be discrepancies in the footage released earlier in the day by the Texas Department of Public Safety…
“Someone clearly cut footage out and looped part of the video in order to correspond with the recorded audio of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia speaking,” Norton wrote. “Who exactly edited the footage is unknown, but the video was recorded by police and released by the Texas Department of Public Safety.”
For example, Norton stated, a man seen in the center of the frame at the 25:05 mark walks toward the right of the frame and off-camera, only to disappear, reappear and disappear again within a three-second period. The footage of him walking toward the right is then seen again.
Norton also said that there are several instances showing looped footage involving vehicles moving at the scene of Bland’s arrest. She was found dead in a Waller County jail cell three days after being arrested and charged with assault on a public servant.
The video itself, by the way, is highly disturbing. Bland’s actual arrest takes place – conveniently – off-camera, although her screams of pain and protest are clearly heard.
The cop obviously knew where he would be filmed and where he wouldn’t be, and it’s hard not to see his decision to take Bland out of the camera’s view before arresting her as a deliberate decision.
On the opposite extreme from police and their lackey-apologists are those who believe that Bland may have died long before the cops claim she did – and that when her mug shot was taken, she was already dead. The theory rests on a close examination of video and photographs that the police department has released. The theory doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny, but it’s making the rounds on Tumblr nonetheless, because it has that quality of truthiness which is hard to deny.
I think there’s a danger in disbelieving literally every single aspect of the police account, just as there is danger is credulously accepting all of their claims. And one can suggest that Bland’s death was quite possibly a suicide without exonerating or excusing the police.
But what I think these extremely opposing views show is that video footage is anything but objective, and does very little to settle matters in debates this contentious. Looking at exactly the same pixels, people can come to vastly different conclusions.
I mean, let’s for the sake of argument give the cops the benefit of the doubt here – though Lord knows they’ve done nothing to suggest they deserve it. But let’s say that their account of the case is factual – that Bland hanged herself and that it was a few hours before she was discovered. What good has video evidence done for them? They claim that the six minute gap in the jail cell surveillance video is due to the camera being motion-activated, and perhaps it is – but why should anybody believe them? They don’t exactly have a long record of truth-telling on this issue, and activists are quite right to be extremely skeptical of their claims.
The fact is that video evidence is always going to be suspect. It will always be open to accusations of tampering. Cops will always be able to find work-arounds, like the officer who took Bland away from the range of his dashcam.
More video cameras won’t solve the problems of police brutality and systemic racism. They won’t because they can’t. Those aren’t the problems they’re designed to solve.
As I wrote in an April article, “‘Better training’, ‘more oversight’, and other technical non-solutions to police brutality“:
At times, though, the hideous wrongness of some cop or group of cops is so glaringly obvious and unavoidable that police apologists have to make some concession to an outraged public. Their aim in such cases is to avoid actually changing the way the police do their work. The criminal [in]justice system works perfectly well from the point of view of police apologists – which is to say, it does what it was designed to do. (See here and here and here for a few examples of the system being built to oppress and imprison marginalized people and communities.)
So the challenge becomes creating the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo. This is where the technical solution comes in. Hillary Clinton championed one such fix in a much-fêted speech a few days back:
Police body cameras might just represent a big talking point in next year’s US elections. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tells those at a policy forum that she wants “every department” to issue the wearables to their officers. While a White House taskforce has already recommended the technology, Clinton believes that the implementations should “go even further” in certain circumstances. As she argues, there’s a pattern of cops abusing their power across the country — body cameras should encourage accountability and transparency.
Which sounds all well and good.
Until you remember that from Rodney King in 1992 right up to Eric Garner last fall, the presence of clear and compelling video evidence of police brutality has consistently not led to actual charges being filed and actual officers being convicted.
Until you remember that the American surveillance state is always hungry for new sources of information on literally everybody, and recording every police encounter with the public sounds like a recipe for a real monster of a database.
Until you remember that countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have drastically lower rates of police-caused fatalities, a fact that was true long before body cameras were introduced in those countries.
Until you remember that tampering with evidence by police is a central part of the problem, and there’s no reason to believe that body camera footage won’t be similarly tampered with.
Until you remember that a main manufacturer of body cameras is Taser International – the company that cashed in big-time by persuading a previous generation that a portable electro-shock device was the solution to too many police shootings.
At which point the notion that we can deal with the ever-present threat of extrajudicial execution which exists in racialized communities across North America by forcing officers to wear cameras would be laughable if it weren’t so grimly terrible.
The thing is, though, the idea is at first glance plausible and credible. For a politician of Clinton’s stature to push it suggests to folks who aren’t paying close attention that the political classes are starting to get serious about the issue of police brutality. Obviously not everybody agrees that it goes far enough, but that’s all right – it reframes the terms of debate around a specific inadequate policy prescription, rather than allowing it to focus on the frequency and brutality of police abuse. And if implemented, it allows the power structure to claim that it’s addressing the issue and standing up for the people.
In the meanwhile, nothing substantial has changed, and the prison-weapons-industrial complex has added another revenue stream to its vast extractive parasitic network.
And as Sandra Bland’s death proves – again, and totally unnecessarily – the presence of video evidence does literally nothing to add certainty to discussions of specific cases of police brutality and violence.
We don’t need more cameras – dash cameras or body-mounted cameras or jailhouse surveillance cameras. We need wholesale reform of the police and of the legal system. We need to radically change our approach to law enforcement. We need to prioritize the preservation of lives. We need to take concrete and meaningful steps to end the oppression of racialized communities.
We need to, as a society, acknowledge that black lives matter – as do Hispanic lives and Indigenous lives and the lives of all racialized people who are disproportionately victims of state-sanctioned violence, and who are disproportionately held down in poverty, and segregated, and discriminated against, and denied opportunity – and, having acknowledged it, we need to act on that knowledge.
And body-mounted video cameras on police officers aren’t gonna do a damn thing to help us towards that goal.