On December 3rd, a New York City grand jury failed to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Protesters around the world, from Oakland to New Delhi, reacted to this decision, demanding reforms to counterbalance the power wielded by law enforcement. They adopted as a slogan Garner’s chilling final words: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Garner is only one of several high-profile cases of black men killed by police. Sadly, these incidents are not rare. By some counts, a black man is killed by police officers nearly every day. Race plays heavily into this risk: a black, male teenager is 21 times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than a white one.
Of all the varied proposals for reform, perhaps the most popular among politicians is to outfit all police officers with body cameras. President Obama recently requested over $250 million from Congress to fund body cameras and police training. Proponents of this plan claim that body cameras will ensure that evidence is available in all cases of alleged police misconduct. They note that people behave differently when they know they are being watched, and conclude that body cameras will reduce misconduct, both by police officers and by civilians.
This argument draws on a common narrative: photography as documentation. This narrative is by no means new. Susan Sontag wrote, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture”.
And yet, we must ask ourselves: is there such a thing as an impartial photograph? After all, every photograph tells a story. Every photograph is narrated in the first person.
Sontag explains, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power”. Body cameras, mounted on the bodies of the police, serve as a permanent record of what the officers see. Body cameras, mounted on the bodies of the police, ensure that police remain in the position of power: the allegedly infallible narrator. Body cameras, mounted on the bodies of the police, reinforce the same imbalance in power structures that they are purported to keep in check. They allow officers to appropriate every interaction by legitimizing the literal viewpoint of the officer. But the objective of reform is not to appropriate civilians targeted by law enforcement; it is to appropriate law enforcement itself.
It might be a different story if we ensured that this power would be reciprocal: that citizens would be able to appropriate law enforcement, just as law enforcement appropriates black lives. But this is not the case: citizen bystanders often get harassed by officers when recording encounters, even when recording officers is legal. In fact, in Garner’s case, Pantaleo was not indicted, but Ramsey Orta, the bystander who filmed Garner’s death, was. At the same time as we provide police with an additional form of power, we rob citizens of this same tool. Police officers may tell their story, but citizens remain “the thing photographed.”
Defendants are not required to testify before a grand jury. Their attorneys usually recommend against it, as it can be incredibly risky. Defendants’ attorneys are not permitted to be present, and with no judge, defendants are completely at the mercy of the prosecutor. Yet, despite these circumstances, Pantaleo felt confident enough to testify, and during the grand jury hearing, he narrated “three different videos of the arrest that were taken by bystanders”. If he had worn a body camera, perhaps he could have stayed at home; his account would have been presented as a fourth video, with him behind the camera.
So we must ask ourselves – would body cameras have made a difference in Garner’s case? If not, what is the goal of arming officers with one more weapon? Or more bluntly, as Sydette Harry asks, ‘Why must black death be broadcast and consumed to be believed, and what is it beyond spectacle if it cannot be used to obtain justice?’.