Commentary

Body Cameras Especially Urgent under Trump Administration

There are strong indicators that President-elect Donald Trump plans to govern as a tough-on-crime executive. In addition to his fire and brimstone law and order rhetoric during the campaign, he has nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as Attorney General, which has civil libertarians deeply concerned. As such, it’s worth asking how a Trump administration will approach the issue of body cameras, one of the most discussed and promising new law enforcement tools.

If Trump’s and Sessions’ comments are anything to go by, it looks as if body camera funds could be reduced or redirected as the federal government oversees a more aggressive War on Drugs.

Body cameras have featured prominently in debates on criminal justice reform since late 2014, when it was announced that Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, who was not wearing a body camera, would not face charges over his killing of Michael Brown. An increasing number of police departments have been outfitting their officers with body cameras, which if governed by appropriate policies can prove invaluable in misconduct investigations.

Whatever policies Trump’s DOJ decides to pursue, criminal justice reformers should continue to argue for the increased deployment of body cameras, something that will be especially urgent if the War on Drugs intensifies.

In October 2015 Trump revealed that he was open to the federal government helping police departments buy body cameras, adding that the tools can be used to exculpate officers who have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. However, more recent comments from the president-elect suggest that his administration would seek to withhold funding from so-called “sanctuary cities.” Such a move could have an impact on police departments that have already received body camera grants or those interested in seeking federal funding.

The Obama administration has, through the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, awarded millions of dollars of body camera funds to police departments across the country. Unfortunately, some of these funds have been awarded to departments that do not have policies in place that promote the increased transparency and accountability many citizens want to see in police departments.

So Trump will inherit a funding scheme for body cameras that could be expanded, but also needs improvement. In the early days of the Trump administration we will see whether a Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) will be awarding body camera grants to “sanctuary cities” and if federal officers will be regularly wearing body cameras.

The federal government has been slow to outfit officers with body cameras, and a Sessions DOJ may redirect funds away from body cameras for local police and towards the increased militarization of police, something we have seen happen via Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants.

But it’s not only police militarization under a Session DOJ that should concern criminal justice reform advocates. Throughout his career Sessions has made sure to maintain impeccable tough on crime and law and order credentials, including loyal support for the failed War on Drugs. In April, Sessions said, “We need grownups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”

With Sessions at the helm of the DOJ we can expect that federal law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will be playing a more active role in states where residents have voted to legalize recreational or medical marijuana. This could include DEA raids on marijuana dispensaries that are legal at the state level. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so while sending federal officers to arrest marijuana storeowners in states where marijuana is sanctioned would be bad policy, it would be legal.

This only bolsters the need for good body camera policies across the country. If the Trump administration does decide to continue fighting the destructive, immoral, and hopeless War on Drugs, officials should at the very least require that DEA officers conducting raids wear body cameras, thereby providing investigators looking into allegations of misconduct with more evidence while also providing increased accountability and transparency.

In the few weeks since the election, Trump has sent confusing signals about policy. During one of the presidential debates he said that Hillary Clinton would “be in jail” under his administration. Yet his recent conversation with New York Times editors and columnists suggests his penchant for putting Clinton behind bars has diminished somewhat since election night. So too has his skepticism of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature piece of legislation. It’s possible that Trump’s policy fickleness could extend to law enforcement. But whatever policies Trump’s DOJ decides to pursue, criminal justice reformers should continue to argue for the increased deployment of body cameras, something that will be especially urgent if the War on Drugs intensifies.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.