In the face of growing demands for police accountability, body-worn cameras (BWCs) have become one of presidential candidates’ most common recommendations. Candidates from Martin O’Malley to Chris Christie have called for broader adoption of cameras, but none have gone further than Bernie Sanders, who has promised to require BWCs for police. These calls to encourage or require the use of BWCs reflect a limited appreciation for how hard it is for federal policymakers to change police practice.
As we discuss in our exploration of federal levers for police reform, the tools for imposing behavior on police are extremely limited. Absent litigation by the Department of Justice, itself only deployed in limited cases, it is impossible for the federal government to mandate that local police do anything—that power resides with state and local governments. The federal government can offer to provide funding or threaten to withhold it to encourage police and states to act. However, past efforts to use funding to encourage behavior like Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Sex Offender Notification and Registration Act show that states are often willing to walk away from the money if they disagree with the aims or if they think the cost of compliance will be greater than the funding.
This is the key difference between Sanders’s plan to require police to use body cameras and Hillary Clinton’s plan to encourage their use. Only one of these strategies reflects an understanding of limitations of the president’s power to reform police. But even candidates like Clinton need to offer a credible plan for what they will do if states and departments walk away from the money.