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.
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.