Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Two Ways to Slow Down Police Brutality

By Jon LevitanPublished November 9, 2014

Police brutality is an ongoing, devastating problem in our country. Can chest-mounted cameras and a more representative force mitigate the problem?

By Jon Levitan, 11/9/2014

Police brutality is an embarrassing, incredibly harmful problem for the United States. Over the summer, of course, the issue took the national spotlight when an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot at least 6 times and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking massive protests. This was not an isolated incident, estimated that there are 1,000 homicides committed by police each year. Compared to England, where police only fired their gun only 3 times last year, we can see that this issue is a purely American one.

            Police brutality, and police misconduct in general, is also clearly a racial issue. Ferguson, MO is 63% black, but an astonishing 86.03% of traffic stops are of black drivers. Obviously, racial profiling by police is closely tied to our nation's long, horrific history of racism, and until we make significant progress in eradicating the institutional bias against people of color, we cannot fully eradicate police brutality. That being said, there are two short-term actions that can be taken to hold police more accountable and hopefully to reduce their misconduct.

Chest Cameras

            Recently, the town of Rialto, California began equipping each of their police officers with chest-mounted cameras that objectively record everything that the officer does. The positive results of Rialto's experiment have been staggering: the use of force by police decreased by 60%, as did citizen complaints against police, which dropped by 88%. Rialto is of course just one town, but the results are promising and do suggest that having the police be recorded on duty will hold them more accountable for their actions.

            Beyond primarily being a preventive measure to make officers think twice before using force, these cameras could also provide clarity to otherwise unclear situations. In the Ferguson controversy, one of the issues was what Brown was doing before Wilson fired the fatal shots. Wilson contends that Brown was charging at him, but many eyewitnesses have stated that Brown surrendered by putting his hands in the air before Wilson fatally shot him. Had Wilson been wearing a camera, this dispute could be easily resolved.

Residency and Racial Quotas

            Currently, most American police officers do not live in within the city they work in. The force in Ferguson, which again is nearly two thirds black, has 4 black officers versus 50 white officers. Both of these facts indicate that many police forces are not representative of the communities they are tasked with protecting. There is no hard data on the effects of policy changes designed to improve representation. It is, however, a common sense step toward reduced brutality: if a police force were representative of the city they work in and had friends and family in the area, they would hopefully adopt a protective mindset rather than an aggressive one. Residency requirements are nothing new — Philadelphia used to have one — but if legislatures took the added step of requiring law enforcement ranks to reflect the racial demographics of the area, the force could be more effective.

In conclusion, I would say that these policies could be applied in tandem to begin to counter what seems to be an ongoing epidemic of police brutality. This very real problem, which does not affect any other developed country to the extent it does the United States, will not go away on its own, we must take concrete steps to halt it.