By Cameron M. Bray ’16
“I can’t breathe,” gasped Eric Garner—a 43-year-old, 350-pound black man—before his death July 17, repeating the phrase several times.
To many he would become a martyr, and his dying words proverbial.
Once a grand jury decided the police officer responsible for the chokehold on Garner would not face charges, peaceful protests began rocking New York City.
In addition, the hashtag #ICantBreathe took its place in the limelight alongside hashtags #HandsUpDontShoot and #BlackLivesMatter.
On the heels of the protest in Ferguson, MO, the video of the Garner altercation helped raise national attention and discussion on police brutality, and body-worn cameras could do the same.
They could help us to promote proper conduct among the police force by allowing us to view the interactions between officers and civilians.
Garner’s death may have been a bombshell, sparking national protests, but it pales in comparison to the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Garner’s assaulter.
The grand jury ruled Dec. 3 that there was no “reasonable cause” to indict Pantaleo despite the coroner ruling the death a homicide by chokehold.
The decision came only about a week after the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, when prosecutor Bob McCullough announced Nov. 24 that the Missouri grand jury had ruled that there was not probable cause to indict Wilson on any charge related to his shooting Michael Brown.
The similarities between the Garner and Brown homicides are striking: They both involved white police officers, black victims, non-indictments and subsequent protests.
However, there are some differences.
For one Garner’s death was caught on video by onlooker Ramsey Orta, and we can clearly see the arrest and the chokehold, and we can clearly hear the words “I can’t breathe.” We could also observe the apparent indifference of the police as they waited for paramedics to arrive.
With the Brown case there were conflicting witness accounts of the shooting: Some witnesses reported that Wilson shot Brown as he ran away; others said that he charged Wilson.
Conflicting witness reports and numerous conflicts of interest made the case a befuddled, partisan imbroglio.
Afterwards, the pundits and politicians, like in the Martin-Zimmerman case of 2012, dutifully took sides with either the officer or the victim.
Unlike the incident in Staten Island, there was no video.
And ultimately everyone – even those who agree with the grand jury’s verdict not to indict Pantaleo – must agree that the video was highly probative.
While the video may not shed light on the officer’s state of mind, it left no doubt as to the actual physical events that occurred.
Thus it becomes clear: In order to ensure accountability and transparency, police officers should wear body cameras.
And President Barack Obama has already caught on to this simple, logical idea.
On Dec. 1 he proposed spending $263 million over three years in order to increase the use of body-worn police cameras.
Overall, this three-year investment could help purchase as many as 50,000 cameras, according to a report on the White House’s website.
Obama, whom I agree with, appeals to simple common sense—people act better when on camera, and police officers are no different.
The police force exists to protect and serve, not to brutalize and kill, and we the people should have access to clear records of how our officers act when on duty.
However, there are some tenable counterarguments to be made.
For one, many people are questioning how effective these cameras could be.
An article from The Wall Street Journal indicated how rarely police officers are indicted, with or without video: From 2004 to 2011, only 41 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter out of more than 2,700 homicide cases.
The counterargument is best summed up in a tweet, recorded by The Washington Post: “Body cameras on cops aren’t going to change anything. There was clear footage of this cop killing Garner, cop still wasn’t indicted.”
While it is true that Pantaleo was not indicted, the video of Garner’s death did, however, attract national attention and discussion.
Without the video, this conversation on police brutality and license would have less weight behind it, and it would be just like the situation in Ferguson.
The video helped broach a difficult subject and give it the national attention it deserved.
Lastly, police cameras are a good step towards rebuilding the trust between the police force and the community, especially the African American community, which has been deeply troubled as of late by several high-profile deaths of its unarmed members.
Police body cameras will provide clear records of the interactions between police officers and civilians, and allow the public to scrutinize police officers and to check for abuses.
Police officers should serve us, not rule us or dominate us, and cameras grant the public greater control over the huge license given to police officers while in the field.