For People of Color Witnessing Police Homicides When the Body Cameras are Not Enough

Ockham’s razor tells us that the simplest answer is the best answer.  Just under a year ago, there was a massive push to get cameras on cops after the Mike Brown shooting.  But this simple answer has not been enough.  What cameras have given us, instead, is a front row seat to police violence. We can watch and judge for ourselves what is happening.  We can point to the murderous truth of bad police shootings.  Still it keeps happening.

The recently released footage of the stops of Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose  are shocking only in the scope of tragedies contained in their footage. Those who already know Black lives matter are heartbroken again.  What the police video assures us is that if we step out of line, some cops will not hesitate to hurt or kill us.  That if you speak out, your rights will mean nothing.  That if you hesitate, they will not.  That if you run, you are as good as dead.  No matter if you are a man, woman, young, old, wholly innocent or unadjudicated suspect.

We watched them kill Tamir Rice.  We saw Sandra Bland’s bad stop before her death in police custody. Poised for reaction, Cincinati officals released the the footage of Sam Dubose murder along with a warrent for the killer cop.  What these incidents tell us is that cameras are not enough.  The video in none of these cases helped to preserve the lives of the victims of police violence.  While two of these three cases will lead to charges against the officers involved, the introduction of video into policing has not stopped officers from taking the law into their own hands.

The fact that cameras alone have not stopped extrajudicial police killings means that there are deeper issues at play.  So, what are the other blocks in this justice jenga?Implicit bias in individual and the system, and a public slow to condemn  violence against blacks (even as they weep about Cecil the lion).  Camera are giving us the data we need to acknowledge some of these deeper issues so the real work can begin.

Why would a cop murder someone knowing he is wearing a body cam?  Perhaps he doesn’t care–he is a true “bad apple”  lacking conscience  or control.  He’s a socipath.  Maybe the murder of Sam Dubose was so out of control that he didn’t care what the tape caught.  In this case, the body cam could prevent future crimes against citizens now that he is behind bars, but the broader fix is to address hiring and training of police to prevent disturbed individuals from holding rank.

a t-shirt from a cop supply shop.

Maybe a cop would act out on tape because he believes his partners and fellow cops will hold the thin blue line and cover for him or her.  Crazy? Like a fox.  We’ve seen countless cases this year when the official story was a cover job to keep a bad cop from facing deserved justice.  In this case, we need an overhaul of our justice systems, a radical reimagining that creates checks and balances, systems that ensure that law enforcement is accountable and responsible to those whom they are hired to protect and serve.

Think about your job.  How many of your customers could die at your hands before you would be fired and policies would be reviewed?  I’m a teacher–the answer is 0.  If a student dies in the care of a school, or a customer dies while eating at a restaurant, the public cries for justice and reform.  If a citizen dies at the hands of the police, the public may ask what he  or she did to deserve it.  Racism has pervaded American culture since the introduction of enslaved Africans at Jamestown.  The bias against people of color must first be acknowledged and then addressed before we can celebrate the achievement that is the America of the Declaration of Independence.

I remind you that the police have no legal justification for shooting unarmed citizens. but our discourse languishes in the relative culpability of the victims.   For those of us who value black bodies, these videos traumatizes us.  We are watching people die time and time again, people who look like us, like the people we love, people that are us.  Just as a fabulous commercial with your favorite celeb is engineered to make you think that you too can be that, so too do dash cams remind us, like a burning cross, to stay in our place or be executed.  I say to you don’t despair, don’t give up, don’t believe the hype.  Black lives matter isn’t a slogan, it’s a simple truth and a siren song that has guided us from slavery and jim crow to civil rights and the white house.   As protesters in Cinicinati chanting Kendrick Lamar’s words last night reminded us–we gonna be all right.

Author: Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer and coach. A former professor and media literacy activist, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot...and writes and speaks about media…and race... and encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

6 thoughts on “For People of Color Witnessing Police Homicides When the Body Cameras are Not Enough”

  1. I agree with your overall sentiment – the cameras have stopped nothing. That cop violence is out of control, that black lives matter (who’s does not?) etc. The only caveat that I would make is that it’s not just the cops. It’s the man or woman on the street too. Racism in this country is so buried now that people don’t even know it when they see it. They don’t see a black man being brutalized – they see a criminal getting what they deserved. They see a black child being gunned down as bad parenting for allowing him to have a toy gun – despite the fact every single one of them played with toy guns their entire lives without being gunned down and it wasn’t “bad parenting” – it was just childhood. They don’t stop for even an instant to wonder how a child is supposed to react to the sudden appearance of cops and somehow – within less than 2 seconds, do something to save their own lives. They just see “he should have known better” or “he should have done what they said”. And the thing is – I don’t know what to do to change any of it. How long will it take our society to even the playing field? Can it even be done? How long will it take before our species sees no difference in black and white, brown or yellow – and just sees human being? How do you change institutional racism when the people running the institution come from the mass of us – who haven’t beaten racism yet either?

    Anyway, thank you for the article – I really like your site and appreciate the views. I have similar things on my own blog, but interspersed with other things, because outrage exhausts me and there are so many things to be outraged about 😦

  2. Yes to all of this!

    And of course they can just switch of the cameras too! Or ‘loose the footage’ as they did for many years in the case of Christopher Alder where evidence was later found of them beating him on the way to the station.

    We need a total reform. A system what was literally built to kill us will not suddenly start saving us because they’ve become conscious or they’re being watched.

  3. This is on point n I think they should make the camera’s stream live back to HQ n have the camera without an off switch button and make it unable to alter the videos, am sure there are hackers that can do all this…right?!

  4. Cameras only serve as accountability, so that at least cops can’t get away with lying and having his partner back him up as the police are wont to do. There has to be a total restructuring of how police are trained, how they are recruited and mental assessments need to be made UP FRONT, before they kill somebody, before they are admitted to a single police academy course. As the way things stand now, any idiot off the street who has aspirations of being a cop with a badge can go apply for a place at the police academy. The standards are low. Also, the police force is a perfect recruiting ground for angry white men who feel like they are being ‘taken over’ by black and brown people. You give them a badge and firearm, it’s like a kid in a candy store.

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