Body Cameras Don’t Protect Black Lives -This begs the question, why even issue body cameras?
There was a push for members of law enforcement to be outfitted with body cameras in cities all across America as a result of the many uprisings concerning police brutality. For example the cases in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown or in Baltimore, Maryland with Freddie Gray.
Houston was one of those cities, indirectly forced to adopt a body camera policy based on those uprisings. From the onset, having a body camera policy sounded great and everybody seemed to want body cameras, because it seemed like it would make Houstonians safer and less likely to be a victim of police misconduct, but to date, that argument has proven to be far from realistic.
But, what has been the reality?
The reality has been that body cameras have not eliminated police misconduct and has not prevented Black people from being killed by police as it has in the past.
Proof of that existing reality became even more glaring recently, when 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot and killed in the backyard of his grandmother’s home in Sacramento, California, on March 18, after officers were responding to reports that a man was in the area smashing car windows. When the officers confronted Clark, they stated that they believed he had a gun. The unarmed Clark was merely holding his cell phone, and no weapon was found at the scene. The officers fired 20 shots at Clark, ultimately sealing his fate.
Then on March 22, just a few days after Clark was fatally murdered, it was reported that 34-year-old Danny Ray Thomas was shot to death by a Harris County Sheriff Deputy for no apparent reason. As a matter of fact, Thomas, who family members described as having suffered from depression, was also Black and unarmed.
Harris County Sheriff Deputy Cameron Brewer, who had only been with the sheriff’s department since 2016, was responding to a call that a Black man was walking down a Houston intersection with his pants down around his ankles, aggressively hitting cars as he mumbled to himself.
Prior to Deputy Brewer’s arrival, a witness on the scene began to record an encounter between Thomas and a motorist who had stopped in the intersection to confront him and his erratic behavior. As Deputy Brewer arrived on the scene to deal with the issue, he witnessed the two men scuffling, to which he broke up the altercation and can then be seen in the cellphone video backing away from Thomas with his gun drawn.
Deputy Brewer then began shouting at Thomas and demanding that he stop walking towards him and get on the ground. As Thomas continued to come towards Deputy Brewer, you can hear a gunshot go off on the cellphone video, but are unable to see the fatal shot because a vehicle passed right in front of the camera as the deputy pulled the trigger on this unarmed Black man.
After shooting Thomas, Deputy Brewer can be seen on the cellphone video leaning over him as he lay there face down and motionless on the ground.
As has typically become customary in most police involved shootings, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office put out a narrative that Thomas had an object in his hand as he approached Deputy Brewer, but after further investigation it was proven that there was no weapon recovered at the scene or in his possession.
As indicated, family members stated that Thomas had suffered from depression after finding out that two of his children were drowned to death in a bathtub by the children’s mother back in 2016. According to family members, he was never the same.
To make matters worse, the officer, who is also Black, had just been issued a body camera a few hours earlier, but never placed it on. As a matter of fact, Deputy Brewer’s body camera was completely off and still charging in his car as he confronted Thomas that day.
This begs the question, why even issue body cameras to law enforcement officers if they are being viewed as optional versus mandatory?
The Forward Times has been on the forefront of asking these tough questions since this conversation began, having published several articles, including one entitled, “Can HPD’s New Body Camera Policy Be Trusted? Read the Fine Print,” where the issue of body cameras being considered for the Houston Police Department (HPD) was called into question, because there was no effective body camera policy in place that the community believed would hold officers accountable for their actions.
With an 11-4 vote, Houston City Council made the decision to go ahead and purchase the body camera equipment and video evidence management system, costing taxpayers up to $6.3 million, but having no effective body camera policy in place. At the time, then-Council Member C.O. “Brad” Bradford vehemently went on the record to say that he supported body cameras and the use of body cameras, but believed that “unless there are special circumstances, I believe cameras should be rolling at all times, when the officer has started and ends their shift, and if not, there should be a report provided and a supervisor must justify that reason given.”
It is disturbing to see this most recent incident involving the shooting death of Danny Ray Thomas by Deputy Brewer, because former Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced during a press conference in 2014 that she was spending $1.9 million from her office’s civil forfeiture fund to accelerate the purchase of body cameras for Houston Police Department officers and Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies, so as to address issues like this.
Anderson also acknowledged, however, that body cameras body cameras were not going to solve all policing problems and that they were “just another thing that I could do that I think is going to really make a significant difference in Harris County.”
In other words, Anderson knew that providing body cameras was not going to be the solution to the real problems facing law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
In a recent study conducted by David Yokum at the Lab @ DC, along with a team of scientists embedded in local government, and Anita Ravishankar of the Metropolitan Police Department, more than 1,000 police officers were randomly assigned body cameras, while another 1,000 were not. Every single officer was monitored for seven whole months, with those conducting the study recording police interaction, citizen complaints, incidents that involved use of force, the decision to charge by a prosecutor, and various other variables in order to see if wearing body cameras actually changed the behavior of the office.
Interestingly, every single metric showed that statistically nothing really changed, which also begs the question, are body cameras really protecting Black people from police misconduct, police brutality, and even worse, police killings?
“The community never advocated for body cameras,” said National Black United Front National Chairman Kofi Taharka. “The people, activists and organizers have been raising the righteous cry for justice surrounding police terroristic acts of police murder and excessive use of force against our people for many decades. Reform measures we have advocated consistently have included Independent Civilian Review Boards and Community Control of Police not Community Orientated Policing.”
Taharka and other community activists have been sounding the alarm about police brutality and issues surrounding the relationship between law enforcement officials and the community for some time, but have grown frustrated with the way the system has handled the issue.
“A few years ago when the demand for justice reached a climax with millions hitting the streets, as a solution the system that protects the murderous acts of police offered body cameras as a solution. When we say the system, we mean the politicians, the law enforcement lobby and unions on the national, state and local levels. Locally, City Hall pushed and approved body cameras for HPD and other law enforcement agencies without having any policies and procedures for accountability. The results are continuous murderous acts; some on and some off camera. The National Black United Front does not consider firing, jail time or financial settlements justice. Justice is for law enforcement not to murder us in the first place.”
Things are seemingly getting out of hand and Black people are growing more and more frustrated as incidents like these continue to occur, where unarmed Black people are killed, while White domestic terrorists are taken into custody unscathed or even taken to Burger King like Dylan Roof was by members of law enforcement.
Then on this past Tuesday, when news broke that no charges would be filed by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry against the two Baton Rouge police officers who shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling on video camera in 2016, it is proof that they system is still broken and is serious need of being fixed.
If used properly, or at all, the body camera could serve as the most useful tool to ensure that police are protecting and serving the citizens of the city of Houston, while having a limited opportunity to use their badge and gun for activities of misconduct, such as making false arrests, assaulting citizens or murdering an unarmed individual.
If things are to truly change, however, the African American community will need to get even more involved with making their voices heard, especially during this election year, before any other Black men and women get injured or killed unnecessarily, with camera footage not even being enough to provide vindication for families and accountability as it relates to law enforcement officials.
Public trust can only be gained by transparency and input from community stakeholders, something that many in the community believe law enforcement officials and elected officials are not doing to restore the public’s trust in the system.
One thing is for sure, more questions are looming and many community residents are not planning to let this issue be put to bed without real answers. The Forward Times will continue keep the community up-to-date on any new and significant developments regarding the shooting death of Danny Ray Thomas by Deputy Brewer, who is on routine paid administrative leave.