Alton Sterling’s killing highlights just how little we can rely on police body cameras

Body cameras can sometimes seem like an easy answer to problems of police misconduct.

When police interact with members of the public while wearing body cameras, the thinking goes, all of those interactions will be recorded, and will be subjected to public review—leading police to improve their behavior.

The federal government, for instance, is very supportive of body cameras. In 2015, the Justice Department rolled out a $23 million pilot program to get more police departments to use them. The effort was part of a package of policy shifts that President Obama announced in the wake of the unrest that shook Ferguson, Mo. after unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer there.

But body cameras don’t always solve the issues they’re supposed to. This week, the police killing of Baton Rouge, La. resident Alton Sterling provided a painful example of how ineffective the body cameras can sometimes be in deterring police misconduct.

Video of the disturbing shooting was captured by a bystander. Meanwhile, both officers involved had body cameras on, but Cpl. L’Jean McKneely claimed in a press conference that both cameras came loose during the confrontation.

A 2014 investigation by Fusion found that for all their promise, body cameras are often ineffective to prevent police misconduct. What’s more, when they are turned on, the footage typically serves police more than citizens.

One of the biggest issues is that officers are often in charge of pressing the record button on the camera, allowing them to decide what gets filmed. In many use of force cases, officers wearing body cameras simply don’t have them turned on.

“This is one of our biggest concerns – the promise of this technology as a police oversight mechanism will be undermined if individual officers can manipulate what is taped and what isn’t,” ACLU Senior Policy Analyst, Jay Stanley told Fusion at the time. “There needs to be very strong policies that make very clear when police officers are expected to be recording and back that up with strict enforcement.”

This brings us to a second issue with body cameras. When police violate their own department’s policies on how body cameras should be used, they are rarely disciplined, Fusion found.

Body cameras also create well documented issues of perception. An interactive that the New York Times released earlier this year show that they can capture activity that looks threatening from one angle but looks benign from other angles or other footage. In this way, the cameras can wind up complicating the narrative of a situation instead of providing the clarity that they are meant to about the nature of the threat officers say they face.

That’s why it’s so important to have many officers wearing cameras. With more than one angle of an incident, these issues of perception are diminished. This would have been the case in the Sterling killing if not for the cameras allegedly coming loose in the scuffle. Unless and until even that footage is released, there’s reason to have a healthy amount of skepticism about how the police say things actually played out.

The case of teen Laquan McDonald, who was shot and killed by Chicago police in 2014, highlights another issue: who is in control of releasing the footage from body cameras. Footage of McDonald’s killing was withheld from the public for over a year. Chicago fought efforts to release the footage tooth and nail, only doing so reluctantly after an independent journalist brought a lengthy lawsuit. Prosecutors finally decided to bring charges against the officer on the very day that the footage was released.

And even if body cameras do everything they’re supposed to do, there’s no guarantee they will actually help convict police officers, as the 2014 investigation pointed out:

Events of the last week have shown that even seemingly strong video evidence doesn’t always result in charges against officers. The failure to secure an indictment in the Eric Garner case – despite what many believe is clear, compelling video – resulted in nationwide protests.

“The Eric Garner case really illustrates the limit of body cameras. They might play an important role in federal or civil lawsuits but in terms of imposing criminal charges, the result is the same with or without video,” Florida International University law professor Howard Wasserman told Fusion.

In other words, body cameras can sometimes do a lot of good. But it’s naive to think that they alone can solve the many, many problems in the justice system when it comes to holding police accountable for misconduct.