Videos Don’t Lie: African Americans’ Support for Body-Worn Cameras

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Videos Don’t Lie: African
Americans’ Support
for Body-Worn Cameras
Amanda Graham
, Hannah D. McManus
, Francis T. Cullen
Velmer S. Burton, Jr.
, and Cheryl Lero Jonson
In light of growing concern regarding the policing of inner-city communities—including questionable
incidents of use of force—equipping officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs) has emerged as a
salient proposal for reform. Based on a national-level survey of African Americans (n¼1,000), this
project shows that wide consensus exists among Black citizens in favor of BWCs. Since ostensibly
“videos don’tlie,” implementing camera technology thus may bea means to increase police legitimacy.
Importantly, the analysis also reveals that African Americans support a broad range of reforms to
improve inner-city policing, of which BWCs are only one. Finally, the survey included a subset of 45
Black police officers. These officers also supported BWCs and most other proposed reforms but at a
level that was lower and less intense than African American members of the public.
body-worn cameras, police reform, race and public opinion
In the United States, police conflict with minority citizens has a long and disquieting history. As
Butler (2017) notes, “There has never, not for one minute in American history, been peace between
black people and the police” (p. 2). In recent decades, this conflict has been exacerbated by proactive
policing tactics aimed at reducing both violent and drug-related crimes, as well as disorder in inner-
city neighborhoods (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). Although
evidence exists demonstrating the effectiveness of enforcement tactics such as broken windows
policing, zero-tolerance poli cing, hot spots policing, and focused deterr ence in reducing crime
(Braga, Weisburd, & Turchan, 2018; Zimring, 2012; see also Weisburd & Braga, 2006), the wide-
spread implementation of these strategies has come with a cost, borne disproportionately by com-
munities of color. Thus, many innocent African Americans have been stopped by the police
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA
University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, AR, USA
Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Amanda Graham, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, P.O. Box 210389, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(3) 284-303
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819846229
(Gelman, Fagan, & Kiss, 2007). Mo re troubling, proactive police pra ctices have, on occasion,
escalated to involve excessive uses of force, including police killings of unarmed Black citizens
(Zimring, 2017).
A key response to these developments has been the Black Lives Matter Movement and, more
generally, the questioning of police legitimacy (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine, 2018). Thought to involve the perceived obligation to obey and support authorities,
legitimacy provides an essential means to secure citizen cooperation and compliance with the police
and, more broadly, the law (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 1990). Importantly, without such
voluntary cooperation and compliance from citizens, police resources are quickly overwhelmed and
cannot adequately maintain order (Tyler, 2004).
Recently, a particular reform strategy has gained increasing attention as a means to improve
police transparency and build legitimacy: requiring the police to wear body cameras that record their
interactions with citizens (Nunes, 2015; President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015).
Likely spurred by the advent of cell phones allowing for the repeated recording of officers’ use of
force against minority citizens, video recordings have proven important in the documentation of
police practice (Simonson, 2016; Wasserman, 2018). In some cases, these videos have contradicted
police accounts of citizen encounters, suggesting that, without such recordings, an incomplete, if not
untruthful, description of an incident would be accepted as fact.
The assertion that police may be deceptive about their patterns and practices of using force is not
entirely baseless. As one example, following the death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, SC, the
officer involved attempted to justify his use of lethal force by falsely suggesting that Scott had stolen
his Taser (Schmidt& Apuzzo, 2015). Research has alsodocumented instances of overtand systematic
deception exercised by police officers whenadhering to an organizational code of silencethat forbids
the formal acknowledgment or disclosureof officer corruption or misconduct(Alpert, Nobel, & Rojek,
2015; Chin & Wells, 1997; The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption, 1994;
Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, 1991; The Knapp Commission,
1973; Patton, 1993; Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). The observation that officers are prone to abide by this
“blue wall of silence” could support citizens’ belief that videos do not lie, but police officers might.
In this context, the current project uses a large national-level sample of African Americans (n¼
1,000) to examine the extent to which this population endorses equipping police officers with body-
worn cameras (BWCs) to increase “the accountability of the officers and the transparency of the
police department” within inner-city neighborhoods. The use of a large sample of African Amer-
icans has the advantage of probing whether any key within-group cleavages in support for BWCs
exist. Another fortuitous aspect of the sampling strategy is that 45 of the respondents were police
officers. The small sample size means that findings should be viewed with caution. Still, the
opportunity presents itself to assess whether African American officers and the public share similar
or divergent views regarding BWCs.
In situating the current study in a context of police legitimacy, it should be noted that the primary
question of interest in this study was specific in asking about support for police use of BWCs for the
purposes of police accountability and transparency. We do not probe alternative reasons for African
Americans’ support of BWCs. Furthermore, because we lack a comparison sample of Whites, we
cannot establish whether Black citizens’ endorsement of cameras is more intense and for different
reasons (e.g., used to identify police misconduct as opposed to exonerate officers when force is
used). Still, as will be seen, the findings of this study are suggestive of substantial African American
support for this initiative and thus have clear implications relevant to police legitimacy. In the least,
they raise issues to be addressed with future inquiry.
Finally, the issue of BWCs is considered within a broader context of other reform measures
proposed to address inner-city policing problems—diversity training, community policing, citizen
review boards, and hiring more African American officers. Of interest is whether African Americans
Graham et al. 285

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