Body Cams Not Objective and Support Not Unanimous: Response to News 12 Report

In a December 15, 2015 news story on body cams following the police killing of JaVario Eagle in Chattanooga, News 12’s Andy Santoro stated that “Officers say if all the police at the tragic scene Saturday were equipped with body cams, the debate over how events unfolded wouldn’t be questioned, one way or the other.” Also in the report, Deputy Chief David Roddy stated the following in reference to body cam footage: “It is an objective capture of what happened between our officers and members of this community.”

“We fundamentally disagree with both of these assertions,” said CCJ organizer Ash-Lee Henderson. Among other concerns raised by members of the Movement for Black Lives, a major concern is the actual subjective nature of body cam footage. Body cam footage primarily records the actions of the person being detained, arrested, or surveilled. It does not fully record the actions of the officer wearing it or other officers involved in the incident. “While body cam footage can provide a perspective of an incident, it is not objective and law enforcement would be mistaken to believe that communities and family members will simply defer to body cam footage without question,” added Henderson.

While it may be true that “sometimes cell phone video from bystanders offers little help,” as stated in the article, that is more a reflection on a system that protects officers despite evidence than it is on the actual evidentiary value of bystander video. “Very clear and damning bystander video of the police murder of Eric Garner in New York failed to secure an indictment of Officer Pantaleo not because the video was of no value, but because Eric Garner’s life was of no value to the system,” stated CCJ member Jared Story.

Indeed, the video was a danger to the system so much so that the bystander was subjected to police retaliation.

Deputy Chief Roddy also stated that “…support for body cams…. is unanimous.” However, CCJ organizer Ash-Lee Henderson said, “Support within the CPD may be unanimous, but that is not the case within the community and the broad movement against government-sanctioned police violence.”

Activists have raised additional concerns around privacy, storage, transparency, public access, officer discretion, and increases in already bloated police budgets- locally, the Chattanooga Police Department already commands 31% of the entire city budget. And certainly not the least of those concerns is the increase in surveillance of Black communities, who are already the subject of over-policing and surveillance by militarized police forces.

Multiple news stories have stated that the CPD is working with the ACLU on developing guidelines regarding privacy in regards to body cam usage, but that only addresses one area of concern.

The ACLU, along with a broad coalition of civil rights, media justice, and advocacy organizations developed “Civil Rights Principles for Body Worn Cameras” that we sent to the CPD after they solicited our general support and a letter of support for federal grant funding for body worn cameras.

On Monday, June 1, 2015, Investigator Mark Frazer of the Chattanooga Police Department Street Crimes Response Team contacted Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ) by email and phone to solicit that support. CCJ acknowledged receipt of the solicitation and raised many of the aforementioned concerns in a reply to Investigator Frazer, Chief Fletcher, Mayor Berke, members of City Council, and City Attorney Wade Hinton.

Not a single one of those officials responded to that letter which is copied below:

June 23, 2015

Investigator Frazer,

We acknowledge your request for general support and a letter of support as you make application for a federal grant funding body worn cameras for the Chattanooga Police Department. We will neither support nor endorse additional funding or use of body worn cameras for the Chattanooga Police Department in the absence of real and effective community oversight.

We have serious concerns about the potential for body worn cameras to exacerbate the already disparate surveillance and incarceration of low-income Black communities. As you know, body worn cameras record the actions of those being detained and/or arrested more than the actions of police officers wearing the cameras.

We will expect and demand the attached “Civil Rights Principles for Body Worn Cameras”–developed by a broad coalition of civil rights, media justice, and advocacy organizations across the country– be implemented in the use of existing body worn cameras in the Chattanooga Police Department and in any future use of body worn cameras including, but not limited to, the body worn camera pilot funded in the 2016 Chattanooga Budget proposal and any federal, state, or local grant-funded use of body worn cameras.


Concerned Citizens for Justice

CCJ demands that the “Civil Rights Principles for Bodyworn Cameras” be adopted by the CPD and that community-led public meetings be held before any implementation of body worn cameras. “CCJ ultimately believes that none of these concerns can be fully addressed without community control over the police and significant divestment from police in favor of investment in community-based solutions to racial, economic, and social inequality,” said Henderson.