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We don't need body cams to show us the criminal justice system is racist

Police arrest a protester in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police arrest a protester in Ferguson, Missouri.
Scott Olson / Getty Images News

Naomi Murakawa, author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, recently gave an incisive explanation of what some of the prominent proposals for police reform miss.

Murakawa told the Marshall Project's Dana Goldstein:

What is so disturbing to me about the scope of liberal reforms on the table is they are taking #BlackLivesMatter and transforming it into legalistic nitpicking and calls for fine-grained evidence. What's so troubling about this focus on body cams is this idea that somehow we need more evidence of what police are doing. When really, the data we see in terms of racial disparities in arrests, summonses, and who's incarcerated is the evidence of racism.

Murakawa is saying that some of the more pronounced ideas for police reform are looking for answers that are currently available. This critique applies to police-worn body cameras, but it could also apply to other proposals, such as calls for more data on police shootings.

Advocates say these reforms are in part supposed to bring more transparency to the criminal justice system to demonstrate there are racial disparities.

But the current data already shows racial disparities across the system. One of the causes for these disparities, Murakawa explained, comes from an overreliance on a bloated criminal code to try to fix far too many of society's ills, such as poverty, mental health issues, and drug addiction, when other government services have failed. Other experts have made a similar point about overcriminalization, arguing that the enforcement of these low-level crimes in minority neighborhoods often feels more like harassment to residents than legitimate policing.

"It's going to take generations for my children's children to undo what it's meant to have a 40-year war on drugs and crime where only black people are targeted for what they do and white people aren't," historian Heather Ann Thompson said in December. "That changes the way generations of people understand race. It makes it seem that blackness and brownness is associated with criminality."

That doesn't mean experts oppose body cameras and other current proposals. There's some evidence body cameras could help deter use of force. Data on police shootings is woefully inadequate, and more data could help construct policies that prevent more instances of excessive use of force.

But, for some critics and skeptics, the policies are surface-level adjustments for a problem that runs much deeper. That's why experts and reformers often suggest broader changes, such as reduced penalties on nonviolent offenses and independent prosecutors or civilian review boards to more strictly oversee police.

Read the full interview with Murakawa over at the Marshall Project.

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