Body cameras cannot fix racism


Omar Etman and Tommy Collison

A Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday, Dec. 3 failed to charge Daniel Pantaleo, a white police officer, in the July 2014 death  of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. A cellphone video captured by Ramsey Orta, a bystander, showed  Pantaleo choking Garner, ignoring his cries of “I can’t breathe.” Pantaleo is currently suspended, and his return to the force is pending an internal investigation as chokeholds are not permitted by NYPD policy. Garner’s encounter with the plain-clothes police force began when they suspected he was illegally selling cigarettes on the street. A medical examiner has ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by both the chokehold and compression of the chest.

Protests began on Wednesday evening in New York City after the verdict’s announcement, and occurred throughout the city, including near the Rockefeller tree lighting. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would not attend the ceremony after the decision was announced. The unrest marks a second wave of protests in the city, following those in response to the failed indictment of officer Darren Wilson. In both situations, the grand jury — in charge of determining whether enough evidence exists for the case to proceed to trial — acted in the role of a jury. Rather than allowing due process to move forward as intended by the judicial system, the grand jury overstepped its bounds with extensive deliberations that weighed condemning and exonerating evidence to reach an ultimate decision. Although adopted by the grand jury in these cases, such duties are intended to occur in trial.

On Monday, President Barack Obama requested $75 million in funding for the purchase of body cameras. The move shows that the White House is attuned to minority distrust of local police forces, at least on the surface. But the proposed technological solution is not a cure-all. Garner’s murder was filmed and Brown’s was not, yet each grand jury ended the same way — without an indictment. Grand juries do not always fail to indict. In fact, one did move to indict Orta two weeks after Garner’s death. Orta was charged for possession of weapons, which his wife believes came about as a direct response to Garner’s death. Patrick Lynch, president of the police labor union Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, criticized Orta for “demonizing the good work of police officers.”

Surveillance does not guarantee justice. It remains to be seen if body cameras will reduce the institutional and brutal racial inequality currently evident in policing. Garner’s case proves that video evidence is not enough. Our legal system was created to serve white men — cops especially, it seems. The widespread adoption of body-camera technology will change the type of evidence that is collected, not the minds of those responsible for interpreting it.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 3 print edition. Email Omar Etman and Tommy Collison at [email protected]