As Reuters reports, President Obama is planning to spend $263 million on police reforms, including 50,000 body cameras for police officers, which would cover less than 10 percent of the total working in cities and suburbs, in “response to the civil rights upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri,” and “is setting up a task force to study how to improve modern-day policing.”
The White House has also spent months reviewing local police’s military-grade weaponry, like tanks and ballistic helmets and helicopters, and to what should be no one’s surprise, announced that it finds them quite necessary.
The New York Times, nevertheless, framed the review results as adversarial, in an article originally titled “Obama to Toughen Standards on Police Use of Military Gear.” The Times writes that Obama will “tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment by local police departments” but he “stopped short of curtailing the transfer” of these weapons.
What does that really mean? He’ll tighten standards, but won’t curtail the transfer? The White House’s report found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.” According to Reuters, “What is needed…is much greater consistency in oversight of these programs,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
So no changes to the steady flow of weaponry, which the Times helpfully, visually explains here:
State and local police departments can obtain free military surplus equipment through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which was created in the early 1990s in response to high crime and drug violence across the country. More than $5 billion worth of equipment has been transferred since the program was started.
Quick notes about the Times’ language, about which alone one could teach a class. In it’s first iteration, the article said, “Mr. Obama is also meeting on Monday with civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials to discuss the stubborn mistrust between the police and the public in African-American communities.” Are both sides “stubborn”? It’s conveniently unclear. Certainly the public has ample reason not to “trust” cops, one of whom has recently killed Michael Brown and been cleared, the rest of whom have spent months of their energy, money, time, and weaponry to defend. As NewsDiffs shows, this article endured several serious edits, and that paragraph was changed to put the neutrality in Obama’s mouth: “Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis,” the president told reporters, describing a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” He called for a “sustained conversation in which, in each region of the country, people are talking about this honestly.”
On to what Obama actually did call for, and what many police reformers have been calling for: body cameras. Both the Times and Reuters reports note that such cameras “could” help give more information in police altercations, with the Times saying it could’ve helped “clarify” Michael Brown’s killing.
The problem with this new policy is the cameras will be under cops’ control, not merely filming their interactions. Police will simply use this new footage — another system of surveillance at their hip — to their advantage. In a post countering several arguments in favor of body cameras for police, David Banks shows how police officers already using them reveal their intent: “Cop-mounted cameras are meant to compete with, and ultimately discredit, citizens’ filming of cops.”
Further police testimony is telling:
One officer praises the cameras for capturing what a nearby cell phone video did not: “Now you can see the [suspect] punching the officer twice in the face before he hits him with his baton.” These sorts of quotes are almost always paired with an assurance that these systems do not get officers in trouble. From the same article: “I heard guys complaining it would get them into trouble, but I’ve had no problems so I’m OK with it[.]”
Banks quotes Ben Brucato, “the very proliferation of media documenting extreme police violence, resulting in severe injuries and even death to civilians, speaks to the limitations of visibility as a protective power.” Many cops have been caught killing civilians on camera, only to twist the evidence in court and ultimately walk free.
Perhaps video footage would have helped indict Darren Wilson, but as I noted here, grand juries are essentially rubber stamps for cops, and experts have already observed the many ways in which Wilson acted improperly, and the grand jury exonerated him anyway.
Furthermore, technology can stop working for authorities at crucial moments (video feed cut out at several moments when I covered the Manning trial, at Ft. Meade, where they’re competent enough to host the NSA). The medical examiner in Michael Brown’s case did not photograph Brown’s body. When asked why, s/he said, “My battery in my camera died.”
Cameras on cops will be trained on citizens, not police. We need to curtail cops’ weapons, surveillance, and immunity. None of Obama’s reforms move toward those goals.
Update, 12/2/14: President Obama is establishing a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to be co-chaired by Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, George Mason University professor and former DOJ assistant attorney general. As Alternet reports, Ramsey in particular is known for abusive tactics. The director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund said, “If the president’s idea of reforming policing practices includes mass false arrests, brutality, and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man.”