Commentary

Feds Must Match Body Camera Rhetoric with Action

Last Saturday U.S. marshals in New Mexico shot and killed 23-year-old Edgar Alvarado in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Alvarado’s neighbor, murder suspect George Bond, lived a few trailers down from him and was arrested on Saturday. The marshals involved in the shooting were not wearing body cameras, and it may be years before Alvarado’s family and friends have crucial questions about his death answered. The lack of body camera footage is worrying, and is yet another example of the Obama administration not matching its rhetoric with action.

Following the November 2014 protests in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson over the death of Michael Brown, the Obama administration proposed spending $75 million over three years on police body cameras. The Department of Justice (DOJ) released a body camera toolkit, held meetings with policy experts, and awarded millions of dollars-worth of body camera grants to law enforcement agencies across the country.

Body cameras by themselves will not produce desired reforms. Such reforms require tools like body cameras to be governed by desirable policies that increase accountability while protecting privacy rights.

However, despite the Obama administration positioning itself on the side of increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement, its behavior since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri ought to concern criminal justice reformers.

While it is true that the DOJ has been awarding body camera grants to law enforcement agencies, these grants are clearly not contingent on agencies implementing policies that would improve accountability and transparency. For instance, one recipient of federal body camera funds, the LAPD, requires officers involved in deadly shootings to view body camera footage before making a statement. Body cameras by themselves will not produce desired reforms. Such reforms require tools like body cameras to be governed by desirable policies that increase accountability while protecting privacy rights.

Not only is the Obama administration awarding body camera grants to police departments with worrying policies, it is also failing to outfit federal law enforcement officers with body cameras. Last year, my colleague Patrick Eddington and I noted that Customs and Border Protection, the country’s largest law enforcement agency, was needlessly delaying the deployment of body cameras.

In addition, while the Obama administration supports more police officers wearing body cameras, it does not allow local officers working with U.S. marshals on task forces to wear body cameras. The message to local police departments is bizarre and contradictory.

Alvarado’s friends and family undoubtedly have questions body camera footage would help answer. Perhaps most importantly, body camera footage would have revealed whether Alvarado posed a threat that justified the use of lethal force to the marshals who killed him.

There are legitimate privacy concerns associated with body cameras. But, these can be adequately addressed. It is time for the federal government to implement policies that outfit federal officers with body cameras while promoting accountability and protecting privacy.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.