Moral Panics and Body Cameras appeared on the Washington University Law Review Commentaries website on November 18, 2014. (1) In the two weeks that followed, relevant events exploded, simultaneously illustrating, supporting, and undermining arguments about body cameras. These events demonstrate the twin ends of the moral panic surrounding body cameras--they are treated either as the complete solution to police-citizen conflicts or as an ineffectual waste of time and a bad idea. As with all moral panics and the public policy made in response to them, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
On November 24, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting. (2) The decision, announced on a Monday evening, sparked immediate protests that turned violent, with hundreds of arrests and millions of dollars in property damages over the next few days. (3) Sympathy protests were held in cities across the nation, also producing scores of arrests. (4)
Those angered by the grand jury decision and seeking greater police accountability turned their attention to body cameras. Perhaps the non-indictment could be explained by the absence of video of the encounter; the grand jury only had the testimony of Wilson and a host of witnesses, many of whom told inconsistent stories. One week after the non-indictment, President Obama announced a $263 million community-policing initiative, which included $75 million in matching funds to help local police departments nationwide establish body-camera programs. (5)
Two days later, however, a New York grand jury declined to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. A bystander had captured the altercation on video, which seemed to show Pantaleo placing Garner in a chokehold (a tactic prohibited by NYPD regulations) and Garner repeatedly saying he couldn't breathe as Pantaleo and several other officers brought him to the ground and lay on top of him. (6) More protests followed across the nation. (7) "I Can't Breathe" entered the lexicon as a rallying cry against police abuse and for greater police accountability. (8)
If one conclusion from the Brown decision was that things might have been different had Officer Wilson been wearing a camera, one conclusion from the Garner decision was that body cameras make no difference, thereby casting doubt on their efficacy as a response...