I Can't Breathe: Why We Need More Than Body Cameras To Change Police

On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict the NYPD officer whose actions led to the death of Eric Garner.

In July, the officer placed Garner in a chokehold while arresting him for allegedly selling loose, or untaxed, cigarettes. The entire incident was videotaped. In the footage, one can clearly hear Garner yelling, "I can't breathe."

In spite of this fact, the officer did not discontinue the chokehold. Garner's body eventually went limp, and he ultimately died as a consequence of the incident.

Chokeholds are not permitted by NYPD guidelines. Likewise, a medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide. Accordingly, many people are extremely upset about the grand jury's decision.

Not to mention, it comes at a time when the entire country is still reeling from the events in Ferguson, Missouri, which have reignited painful but necessary discussions surrounding race relations and police brutality.

Body Cameras Are A Good Idea, But Not A Comprehensive Solution

In August, a white cop, Darren Wilson, shot an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. This sparked outrage and debate both within Ferguson and across the nation.

The evidence surrounding this case is convoluted. There are conflicting autopsies as well as contradictory eyewitness reports.

Many argue that requiring police to wear body cameras would be the solution to such incidents, in the sense that it would force cops and citizens to be on their best behavior. In other words, this policy would inspire the "smile, you're on camera" effect.

Correspondingly, in response to all of these developments, President Obama announced that he was allocating $75 million to provide 50,000 body cameras for law enforcement.

The hope is that if police wear these cameras, it will reduce unnecessary force while also inspiring citizens to avoid antagonizing officers.

Yet, given the fact that Eric Garner's disturbing fatal arrest was caught on camera and this still didn't lead to an indictment, people are beginning to doubt whether body cameras would be impactful.

Simply put, the perception is that if a cop got caught killing someone on camera and didn't get in trouble, how will body cameras actually change things?

This is a fair argument. Yet, Jesse Singal of the Science of Us makes an important point in this regard, stating:

What’s key to realize about these cameras in the context of the Garner case is that their presumed effects only kick in when officers know they’re being watched all the time.

Additionally, there is already evidence that body cameras are quite effective.

Rialto, California ran a yearlong study in which 54 officers were randomly assigned to wear body cameras.

Rory Carroll of the Guardian wrote a report on this, noting that "after cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers' use of force fell by 60%."

This is a very positive sign.

At the same time, body cameras are new technology and largely untested. We can't make any conclusive remarks on their impact until we see how they influence things on a broader scale.

This does not mean that we should not support this idea, but that it's important to note that body cameras will only be part of the solution.

Accordingly, some have also suggested that it's time to demilitarize the police, in the sense that they often utilize military-grade equipment. For example, police used tear gas against protestors in Ferguson back in August. Tear gas is classified as a chemical weapon and its use has been illegal in war since 1993, yet police used it on common citizens. This is something to think about.

When police officers are trained like members of the military, they begin to see citizens as threats rather than individuals.

Thus, the way in which we educate and train police obviously needs to change.

Police Must Increase Community Engagement

It's evident that relations between the public and the police have become deeply strained as of late. Much of this has to do with the way that police engage with the communities in which they work.

Fortunately, the Justice Department is aware of this issue, which is why it recently announced it would spend $5 million on the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

This program is aimed at improving the training of police officers in relation to bias and the proper execution of police procedures.

It's all part of a multifaceted strategy known as community policing.

As Dennis Lynch puts it for the International Business Times:

Community policing is a broad philosophy that promotes engagement between the police and the people they are policing. While each department tends to adopt its own methods for engagement, a consistent recommendation is to empower the public and offer them the resources they need to raise awareness of and eventually solve the problems facing their neighborhoods.

One example of a community policing program is that of Neighborhood Watch. Thus, it's a policy that reduces police intrusion in the lives of the public.

Christopher Vicino, assistant chief of police in Riverside, California, has said that community policing in his area has reduced crime rates significantly, noting:

Violent crimes probably dropped 30 or 40 percent over a 30-year period. Community policing isn’t the only thing that’s done it, but it has definitely contributed. [Community policing is] a philosophy that pushes the police officer to solve neighborhood problems. ... We don’t tell you what your problems are; we ask you what your problems are.

In other words, police often try to dictate to a community what its problems are. This is both patronizing and imprudent. Given residents actually live within their communities day-to-day, they are in a much better position to assess the issues necessitating attention.

Thus, community policing helps in the sense that communities take a greater responsibility for their own safety whilst also building a rapport with local police.

Simply put, if police are more familiar with the members of a community, they are more likely to treat them with respect and less likely to use excessive force. This is a policy that builds trust between civilians and police, something this country desperately needs.

At the same time, it's important for the public to remember that not all cops are bad. Most of them are just doing their jobs and actually care a great deal about public safety.

When building trust, it takes two to tango. In the midst of the warranted and understandable grief surrounding Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many others like them, it's difficult to remain cognizant of this.

Yes, the criminal justice system is far from perfect, and there is no question that it has massive room for improvement. Moreover, it's apparent that this country is still contending with racism, which is reflected in America's policing and incarceration rates, among other areas.

The criminal justice system is a reflection of society as a whole. We all have to fight against the perils of racism, oppression and discrimination together.

Until these evils are eradicated from the general populace, we can never expect law enforcement to be completely devoid of them.

Policing in America will only improve if the public is actively engaged in the process.