The implementation of body cameras has been hailed as a key effort to rein in police misconduct by increasing accountability, but studies have shown they’re actually not particularly effective.
Less than 24 hours after police in Louisville, Kentucky, failed to turn on their body cameras as they shot and killed an unarmed Black man, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the city’s chief of Police.
The killing of 53-year-old David McAtee, a local restaurant owner and a man described as a “community pillar,” occurred early Monday morning in an incident that is now under investigation. The Courier Journal reported that McAtee’s mother, Odessa Riley, was among hundreds of protesters who took to the streets in the aftermath of the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.
Riley and the other protesters gathered on a street corner at 26th and Broadway, where Louisville police and National Guard were attempting to break up a “large crowd,” near McAtee’s business, Yaya’s BBQ Shack.
Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) Chief Steve Conrad issued a statement on Monday morning saying shots were fired at police officers, who then returned fire alongside the National Guard. Within hours, Conrad was relieved of his duties by the mayor, who announced that not a single officer involved had activated their body cameras—a violation of LMPD policy.
“That lack of institutional failure will not be tolerated,” Fischer said during a Monday afternoon briefing in which he announced Conrad’s termination, effective immediately. Robert Schroeder will serve as interim police chief.
“I am saddened that it took this much calamity in our city to remove the chief of police,” Metro Council President David James said Monday. James, who was friends with McAtee, told BuzzFeed News that McAtee used to feed police officers for free.
“He liked the police,” James told BuzzFeed News. “He used to give the police free food while they were working. He talked to them all the time.”
McAtee’s death has further inflamed tensions in the city, which was already reeling from the death of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot and killed by police in her own home in March. It’s also once again raised questions about the effectiveness of body cameras, one of the few tangible and widespread policing reforms achieved in recent years.
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While the implementation of body cameras has been hailed as a key effort to rein in police misconduct by increasing accountability, studies have shown they’re actually not particularly effective. In a 2019 report, researchers at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University found that in many departments, body cameras have not had “statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police.”
Another 2019 study of 2,224 officers in the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., found that “cameras did not meaningfully affect police behavior on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force.”
Collectively, studies have determined that while body cameras can be a useful tool, they do not single-handedly deter police violence or improve accountability. That may not come as much of a surprise after the events of the past week. After all, body cameras didn’t stop George Floyd from being killed. They didn’t stop two Atlanta Police Officers—who’ve since been fired—from violently yanking two college students out of a car and tazing them without cause. And they haven’t stopped countless other police killings, either.
Here are four other cases where body cameras failed to deter violence and hold officers accountable:
Early in the morning on October 12, 2019, Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was in her Fort Worth, Texas, home, playing video games with her nephew. A neighbor noticed the doors to the house were open and grew concerned, given the late hour. He called a non-emergency police number, and two officers responded to check on the family.
As they walked around the house, Jefferson heard a noise in her backyard. She grabbed her gun from her purse and pointed it toward a window, according to her 8-year-old nephew. Officer Aaron Dean reportedly yelled, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” and then quickly fired through the window, killing her, body camera footage showed. Neither he nor the other officer identified themselves as police. Dean resigned and was charged with murder. He was indicted in December and is currently awaiting trial.
On March 18, 2018, two Sacramento Police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 23-year-old Black man, in his grandmother’s backyard. The Sacramento Police Department said they were responding to a 9-1-1 call about a man breaking car windows who had taken refuge in a backyard with a crowbar.
The officers fired 20 rounds and said they thought Clark had a gun in his hand. Police found only a cell phone on him. He did not have a gun or crowbar.
Clark was shot eight times.
The Sacramento Police Department later released additional videos showing that the officers involved muted their body cameras at least 16 times, and waited six minutes between shooting Clark and trying to revive him using chest compressions. They even handcuffed and searched him before performing first aid. While the case sparked national outrage, the officers were never charged and are now back on active duty. In the aftermath, the Sacramento PD revised its rules, limiting when police officers can disable their body cameras.
On January 18, 2016, Daniel Shaver begged for his life. The 26-year-old white father of two dropped to his knees, sobbing, and crawled on the floor of a Mesa, Arizona hotel room, pleading with a police officer not to shoot him.
As captured by his body camera footage, Mesa Police Officer Philip Brailsford issued contradictory orders for Shaver to raise his hands in the air, but also crawl toward him, and Shaver struggled to meet the officer’s commands. As Shaver inched forward, he moved his arm toward his waistband and Brailsford promptly shot him to death. He was unarmed.
Police had been responding to a report of a rifle being brandished at the window of Shaver’s hotel room. After the shooting, the rifle, which Shaver never held during the incident, was determined to be a pellet gun. Brailsford was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, but was found not guilty by a jury. He was later reinstated to the police department in August 2018 so that he could retire on medical grounds shortly afterward and collect a $31,000 per year pension.
On July 19, 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing pulled over Samuel DuBose because he didn’t have a front license plate. Tensing, who is white, asked DuBose, who was Black, for his driver’s license, but DuBose didn’t provide it (it was later revealed his license was suspended). DuBose also declined to take off his seat belt, and instead slowly drove forward. He was unarmed and posed no danger to Tensing, but Tensing shot him in the head at point blank range, killing him.
The incident was captured on Tensing’s body camera and conflicted with the officer’s claim that he was being dragged by the car. Tensing was fired and tried twice on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter, but both cases ended in mistrials caused by hung juries.
In each of these cases, just as in the case of George Floyd, body cameras failed to deter police from killing unarmed individuals, and not a single officer involved has served a day in prison for their behavior.