Rethinking the Call: The Limits of Cameras and Training

From the Series: #BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

Body camera. Photo by Utility, Inc.

In a January 2015 Washington Post article, Sandhya Somashekhar aggregated demands from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Although the list is debatable, she put it forth to counter the argument that the movement is disorganized, as evidenced by a lack of central demands. Others have also challenged this critique and highlighted the strengths of the grassroots-organizing practices the movement developed, which serve to disrupt hierarchies. In the space available, I want to focus on two items on Somashekhar’s list that are often discussed after high-profile cases of police violence: (1) bodycams/dashcams, and (2) more police training. I will discuss some of the logics and logistics of these demands as someone who researches and works with police. I will also discuss their limits because, in the end, we are talking about racist systems that must be dismantled.

Wearable and Mountable is Debatable

December 2014: Barack Obama announces $263 million in funding for police body cameras and training, of which $75 million would fund body cameras for upwards of 50,000 police. The remaining funds would “underwrite police training and outreach programs targeted at building better trust between law enforcement and their communities” (Sink 2014). Two months later, city officials in Baltimore announced a body-camera pilot program, stating that it would “increase accountability and transparency for our police force” (City of Baltimore 2015). For those unfamiliar with the paradigm of community policing that took hold in the 1990s (see Chesluk 2004; Stewart 2011), the language and tactic is similar: massive funds made available for technology in an attempt to overcome mistrust. We can measure the net result of these efforts if, after over twenty years, we are still having the same discussion. The only thing that has changed is the technology. Body/dash cameras are delivered as solutions in which video will be the medium of accountability and provide undeniable evidence when brutality occurs.

History (and visual theory) tells us otherwise.

Los Angeles 1991: a video depicting police beating an unarmed black motorist was seen by many as undeniable evidence of racialized police violence. However, during the trial the video was transformed into evidence used to justify the violence against Rodney King. The officers were acquitted. Allen Feldman (1994) has analyzed how the King video was taken apart frame by frame in a narrative that justified violence based on racialized police perceptions. Pressed further, Feldman’s analysis now mirrors contemporary narratives used to justify Eric Garner’s murder: the perception of noncompliance is used to justify the escalation of force—a perception fueled by anti-black racism.

Depending on the viewer, the King and Garner videos can justify force because seeing like a citizen and seeing like the state are often incompatible lenses. So why support more cameras?

A recent report by the National Institute of Justice indicates that recording technologies can increase guilty pleas while improving public/police relations. The increase in convictions can be measured, but improved public relations are harder to quantify. Nevertheless, there is an influx of funds from the Obama administration and a belief—by police and public alike—that the cameras can produce accountability. But this belief in the technology is predicated on a false logic that filming produces undeniable evidence. History shows us that the captured image remains contested and any image can be reframed to justify a violent encounter depending on the gaze of the viewer. In other words, these cameras serve as a foil to mask the actual issues: a crisis in confidence and a racist system.

Training Spaces

In the United States and in Canada, I’ve heard the call for more police training as a call to correct police practices. Attitudes that allowed for Tamir Rice, twelve years old, to be shot within seconds of police contact, and that accommodated the use of racialized and animalistic language to justify the beating of Rodney King are now echoed by Officer Darren Wilson in his justification to kill Mike Brown. The calls for more training seek to address systemic racism—but where to start? As with any social movement, I would argue, there is a need for different scales of action, both inside and outside the system.

As someone who has researched police practices and training for the past ten years, my work is attentive to broader structural constraints (e.g., ongoing impacts of settler colonialism on contemporary police practices) while attempting to bring observations back to police with the goal of impacting frontline practices. My current research looks at the ways in which a specific cognitive disability, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is taken up by police and other justice professionals. Part of this project involves collaborations around training. From this research, it is clear that there is a very finite amount of space available for new police training. Police colleges and academies, where new officers receive training, and recertification programs are hard to permeate because each training module is spoken for. I therefore argue that rather than seeking to impact training in these spaces, it would be more effective to start at a smaller scale.

In my research, police have indicated being open to new material on key issues. One spot to introduce this material would be during shift briefings. Briefings happen at the beginning of the shift and are understood to have training value (Stering 2005), as material can include information about suspects or broader issues that impact policing. In practice, one officer suggested, shift briefings could be used to deliver five- to ten-minute presentations on key issues. Presentations could be created by community workers and police together, so that the content is delivered with correct information (from the community worker) but also with a frontline sensibility (from the police officer). This type of informal collaboration is likely happening in many locations, but there is scant evidence of it in the literature.

Of course, these forms of collaboration will not undo systemic racism, and yet they can open up a line of much-needed communication. Larger interventions, including broader training at the local or even regional level, could then be initiated. In my work, that means taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration and conversation to open up a line of communication with police about colonialism and its impacts. These discussions start at the level of the individual officer, with the goal of scaling them up. It is slow work, and while that work is important, it also has limits.

We are, and continue to be, caught in systems that demand more than reform—racist, imperialist, and colonialist systems that need undoing. This undoing requires us to ask new questions of ourselves as activists and academics. For those of us that work in areas that lend themselves to working inside these systems, let’s best apply our trade. But in so doing, let’s not be mistaken: these must be the small steps on a longer path that aims to dismantle racist systems that are organized to oppress. By working together, and honoring each other’s work, we can bring about systemic change—in policing but also in many of the other institutions and systems that organize and govern our lives.

Michelle Stewart is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at the University of Regina and Strategic Research Lead for Justice Interventions with the Canada FASD Research Network.


Chesluk, Benjamin. 2004. “‘Visible Signs of a City Out of Control’: Community Policing in New York.” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 2: 250–75.

City of Baltimore. 2015. “Mayor Announces Recommendations for Body Camera Program.” Office of the Mayor, February 18.

Feldman, Allen. 1994. “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King.” American Ethnologist 21, no. 2: 404–18.

Sink, Justin. 2014. “Obama to Provide Funding for 50,000 Police Body Cameras.” The Hill, December 1.

Stering, Robert S. 2005. Police Officer’s Handbook: An Introductory Guide. Mississauga, ON: Jones and Bartlett Publishers Canada.

Stewart, Michelle. 2011. “The Space Between the Steps: Reckoning in an Era of Reconciliation.” Contemporary Justice Review 14, no. 1: 41–61.