Police turn body cams into tools for public relations, not accountability

“What we’re seeing in practice on the ground is that even though body cams were sold to us as a police accountability tool, they’re really being used for public relations purposes, to make the police look good,” says Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College sociologist and author of “The End of Policing.” “The media should be asking for unedited footage and should be demanding access to footage that plays a role in accountability, not in PR.”

All of that would be fine, body-cam advocates say, if departments were more consistent about how and when they provide public access to raw, unedited body-worn camera recordings. Instead, they say, there’s this haphazard practice in which footage in controversial situations such as officer-involved shootings can be difficult to obtain.

“I have a little Twitter notification for body cam video, and I noticed when looking through them, a lot of them are positive things—police rescuing someone, maybe getting a cat out of a tree or officers exercising restraint—which is good and terrific and I’m glad those videos are out there so the public can see what law enforcement officers are doing and doing well, but you can’t have it both ways,” says Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to release everything that makes us look good and then withhold everything in which there are questions of what law enforcement did in a particular situation.’”

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