On Jan. 27, Memphis police released body camera footage documenting the moments leading up to the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of at least five police officers. These officers — all of whom were Black — activated their body cameras the moment they illegally pulled Nichols out of his vehicle for an alleged traffic violation, and the cameras kept running throughout the entirety of the tragic incident. What the cameras did not do, however, was save Nichols’ life.
As a native Bronx resident, former Bronx public defender, and innovator now fighting to bolster public defense at Partners for Justice, I have seen time and time again how police officers are becoming increasingly undeterred from engaging in violent behaviors simply because they are on camera. Body cameras and Black officers alone do not equate to true community safety, and it’s time for New York City’s leaders to learn from Memphis, acknowledge the limits of police reforms, and increase investment in community-based solutions which actually promote public safety.
The options are plentiful and include affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to mental health and substance use treatment programs, rights restoration, community-building measures such as mentorship programs, and well-funded public defenders’ offices who can connect those who need these services most with the appropriate programs.
The use of body cameras in policing is not new. In 2015, the Obama administration invested more than $23 million dollars to fund the Body Worn Camera Pilot with the goal of enhancing transparency, accountability, and credibility in policing. The assumption was that the presence of cameras at the scene would encourage improved behavior from both citizens and officers. Today 47% of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have acquired this technology. But the unfortunate reality is that eight years later, there is no strong evidence that this increase in transparency has equated to increased community safety.
The first reason is a widespread failure of officers to activate their cameras when they are supposed to. In many cases, cameras are turned on midway through an incident, and often officers subsequently avoid handing over whatever footage is recorded to parties concerned with police brutality. This bars oversight groups such as New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board from accessing footage of entire ordeals from start to finish. Secondly, many law enforcement agencies lack standard rules and operating procedures around the use of body cameras, leading to mixed results.
The assumption that diversifying the police force will in turn make communities of color more safe is also not necessarily true — we saw this very clearly in Nichols’ case, and it has held true in New York for more than 100 years. The unfortunate reality is that police forces across the United States are the most diverse they have ever been, yet we still see Black and Brown people being killed at an alarming rate.
Memphis had all the reforms: body cameras, Black officers, and extensive officer training. Yet these failed to save Nichols’ life. The body camera footage captured in the Nichols case played a crucial role in exposing the violent acts of the officers, and without it, these officers might still be employed and empowered to commit similar acts in the future. But the footage did nothing to make Memphis safer. New York’s leaders would be wise to learn from this incident and invest in true pro-safety measures.
Specifically, as the City Council reviews the mayor’s preliminary budget, they should look for ways to reinvest money back into the community. In New York, this might look like rerouting $10 million from the mayor’s Rat Reduction Initiative to invest in education opportunities for those reentering society after being incarcerated. Or shifting 1% of policing funds to expand mental health treatment options. Or levying a 0.01% tax increase on the wealthy to invest in employment programs aimed at leveling the playing field. Any such change — no matter how incremental — would have profound impacts on the city’s public safety.
Of all these potential investments, that with perhaps the highest return on investment would be appropriating increased funds to New York’s network of public defenders’ offices. Because no matter how much we invest in social services and community-based interventions, they are meaningless if those in need of support are unsure how to access them.
Well-funded public defenders are situated perfectly to help folks who have been entangled in the criminal legal system obtain the support they need to avoid future entanglement, and the end result is a safer city for all of us.
Easter is a former Bronx public defender and the Mid-Atlantic regional program director at Partners for Justice, a national nonprofit working to bolster public defense.