It’s mind-numbing to imagine, in the era of universal video, that five police officers could participate in the brutal beating of Trye Nichols, which led to his death three days later. That their body cameras were switched on and filming both their own actions and those of their colleagues seems to have deterred them not at all.
The horror here is on two levels: First, another unjustified killing of an unarmed Black civilian by law enforcement officers, and another Black family forced to mourn a senseless loss; and, second, the realization that the cameras made no difference.
Let’s start with the first. Here the scholarship is sobering. We know, for instance, that a Black male has an almost 1 out of 1,000 lifetime chance of being killed by police, by far the highest of any group. Is race the main causal factor? The question has generated heated controversy, but many scholars who’ve drilled into the data think the answer is yes.
For instance, a 2020 study of some 3,900 police killings found that after correcting for several “objective circumstances” surrounding each episode, Black suspects remained about twice as likely as White suspects to be killed. Yes, the matter remains hotly disputed, but those who see no racial angle in police violence should at least take a look.
On the other hand, nobody doubts the key findings of the economist Roland Fryer’s path-breaking 2016 paper on officers’ use of “non-lethal” force. The research covers police interactions with civilians in four major cities, examining violence at different levels of intensity, from shoving a suspect against a wall to drawing and pointing a weapon. The stark and startling result: At every level of intensity, force was 50% more likely to be used against Black and Hispanic civilians than against White civilians.
Why would this be? Perhaps because, as the psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt and her colleagues reported in a well-known study, police officers themselves are significantly more likely to perceive Black faces than White faces as criminal. Yes, that study was conducted almost two decades ago. The shattering possibility is that it’s still true — and that it could also be true when the officers themselves are Black, as they are in this case.
All of which brings us to body-worn cameras, known in the literature as BWCs. They seem to have been the key evidence in the firing of the five officers present when Nichols was beaten to death, and absent guilty pleas, they’ll surely be the most persuasive evidence at trial.
There’s the irony. BWCs were supposed to be a deterrent against such inhuman violence. That’s why they’re being widely adopted, not only in the US but around the world. In fact, episodes of unjustified police violence against members of minority groups tends to increase public support for body cameras, and that outcome holds in roughly the same proportion for White and Black respondents alike.
But even before Nichols was so brutally assaulted, the scholarship was raising serious questions about whether the cameras would truly make a difference. For one thing, views about police are increasingly polarized, and apart from the most outrageous acts of violence, it’s not obvious that the existence of BWC footage will change that. Research with mock jurors suggests that prior biases either for or against the police tend to carry over into judgments about police actions captured on body cameras.
For another, people don’t always believe their eyes. In one much-discussed experiment, test subjects read a police officer’s report in which he stated, among other things, that a suspect attacked him and also was carrying a knife. The subjects also viewed BWC footage of the incident. In the video, no knife is visible and the suspect doesn’t attack the officer. Nevertheless, asked afterward what they remembered, most said there was a knife and that the suspect attacked.
Here’s another peculiarity: Research published in 2019 found that subjects who viewed body camera footage of a violent interaction between an officer and a suspect tended to be more sympathetic toward the officer than those who viewed dashboard camera footage of the same incident.
Perhaps none of that will matter in the death of Tyre Nichols case, where there seems to be little doubt about what happened. I’m never a fan of the rush to judgment, but by all accounts, the footage is so damaging that it’s difficult to know what defense the fired officers will mount.
Yet at minimum the horror from which the nation is still reeling tells us that requiring law enforcement officers to wear cameras is no panacea for what ails us.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not by any stretch anti-police. I don’t think the median officer is better or worse than the median civilian. Police have a stressful and often dangerous job for which they don’t get enough credit or gratitude. I’ve argued more than once that those who are concerned about violence committed by officers — if they’re serious — should support raising, not cutting, the budgets of police departments, not least to pay for better training.
That won’t comfort a grieving family, but unlike all politicians fighting for television time to say how appalled they are, it might actually make a difference.
More From This Writer at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Police Training Is Expensive and It’s Still Not Enough
• It’s Too Hard to Sue the Bosses of Bad Cops
• The Breonna Taylor Settlement Is Part of the Solution
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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