Farhad Manjoo: Cameras won’t prevent police killings

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

A chilling word keeps coming to mind this week, like a scratched-up record stuck on a lazy loop in my tweet-addled brain. Impunity.

If you can bear it, watch one of the videos of George Floyd’s death last week at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Focus on the eyes of Derek Chauvin, the officer who has been charged with murder and manslaughter for pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for a torturous 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

At several points, Chauvin makes smirking eye contact with the camera. He even halfheartedly reaches for what looks like pepper spray when the phone-wielding bystanders get a bit rowdy in their insistence that Floyd is dying before their eyes. But the presence of the bystanders doesn’t stop him; it’s almost as if Chauvin knows nothing can touch him. Impunity is the only word I can think of for it.

Keep a close eye, too, on Tou Thao, Chauvin’s partner, who engages with the crowd in the manner of a security guard at an amusement park. As Chauvin pins Floyd down, Thao is almost polite in his colloquy with the people recording the scene. It’s as if he knows he’s going to be all over social media later, so he’s going to play it cool.

I’ve watched the Floyd videos at least a dozen times, and every time, it’s Thao’s composure that stiffens the hairs on the back of my neck. Thao comes off as completely unashamed of the misconduct he witnesses and, with his silence, encourages, in full public view.

Cameras were supposed to eliminate this sort of horror. Here, they hardly make it better.

Ever since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, America has been flooded with videos — captured by bystanders and by law enforcement officers on dashboard and body cams — that have highlighted the routine abuse and killing of unarmed black people at the hands of the police.

As these cameras have become ubiquitous, we have gotten a better picture of the scale of the horror. At times, as in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014, bystanders have managed to capture the precise moment at which police misconduct becomes fatal.

Yet in the Garner video, the police try to push the camera away. The cops seemed at least embarrassed by it.

What’s particularly nauseating about the Floyd videos is that the officers know they’re being watched, yet they are not deterred and don’t even seem bothered by the cameras. A similar shamelessness was on display in the innumerable clips showing police officers brazenly assaulting protesters and journalists during protests this weekend.

As I scrolled through endless collections of these online, I found it hard to escape the conclusion that America’s police forces are not just unfairly brutal — they also do not seem to care anymore about being caught on tape.

While videos have catalyzed protest movements like Black Lives Matter, documenting police misconduct in America has had little effect in reducing it.

Not long ago, many reformers saw video as a key way to improve policing. In 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown by the police in Ferguson, Mo., the Obama administration allocated funds to help police departments purchase tens of thousands of body cameras. Even some civil liberties groups endorsed the idea.

The theory was simple: If there were bad cops on the force, body cams would root them out and make it easier to prosecute them.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. One major study of body cameras in American policing, which followed more than 2,000 officers in Washington, D.C., found that the cameras did little to alter police behavior. Officers equipped with cameras used force and faced complaints from civilians at rates similar to those for officers who didn’t have cameras.

What’s more, in several high-profile cases, jurors were reluctant to convict, even with eyewitness and body-cam videos capturing wrongdoing. In 2015, Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, who had been caught on video shooting a black man named Walter Scott multiple times in the back, was charged with murder. The trial ended in a hung jury when a lone juror declared himself unable to convict. (Slager later pleaded guilty to the federal crime of violating Scott’s civil rights and was sentenced in 2017 to 20 years in prison.)

One problem is that video is often open to interpretation — where critics of the police see clear brutality, jurors who are inclined to give police officers the benefit of the doubt may excuse as sins actions in the heat of the moment.

There are also a hodgepodge of policies governing body cameras. Different states have different rules about when officers are supposed to turn them on and who gets access to the video when there are questions about officers’ conduct. In some cases, officers equipped with body cameras have conveniently neglected to turn them on. On Monday, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, fired the city’s police chief after discovering that two officers involved in the fatal shooting of a black business owner had not turned on their body cameras.

What happens when, time and again, law enforcement officers are recorded brutalizing citizens but left unpunished? I worry that police violence will become even more normalized, turning into a crude spectacle that loses even the ability to shock. How else to explain the orgy of violence on display this weekend?

“The whole world is watching” is what American pundits might say to China’s leaders when they round up Uighurs to send to re-education camps, or to Vladimir Putin of Russia when he banishes dissidents to an Arctic military base.

The phrase applies to our country, too. The whole world is watching and has been for decades. Yet little changes, because merely watching is not nearly enough.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.