Ronald Bailey has an interesting essay, Watched Cops Are Polite Cops.
Who will watch the watchers? What if all watchers were required to wear a video camera that would record their every interaction with citizens? In her ruling in a recent civil suit challenging the New York City police department’s notorious stop-and-frisk rousting of residents, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Federal District Court in Manhattan imposed an experiment in which the police in the city’s precincts with the highest reported rates of stop-and-frisk activity would be required to wear video cameras for one year.
This is a really good idea. Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60 percent. Watched cops are polite cops.
I agree with the premise (and the need for strict rules to protect the privacy of individual citizens, as discussed later in the piece).
However, I have no expectation that this would improve much if implemented. We already recognize how many people accept the government’s assertions in criminal cases. Charged is too often synonymous with guilty. More on point, we know how such video evidence will be treated.
Consider this case of a man arrested in Florida in 2010:
An 18-year-old man faces a number of charges today after West Melbourne police found him jogging naked wearing only swimming goggles next to a busy roadway.
“He was jogging butt-naked and didn’t even have on shoes. We suspect he was under the influence … he was a little incoherent,” said Cmdr. Steve Wilkinson, spokesman for the West Melbourne Police Department.
Okay, fine, we can’t have that. But is the bolded part here true?
The unidentified man, who officers had to subdue with a Taser, was seen sprinting at about 7 a.m. today near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Eber Road, officials reported.
Cmdr. Steve Wilkinson said King could not have been caught without the Taser, adding that King was speaking incoherently but was also apologetic for inconveniencing police.
In this case, the officer’s Taser had a camera attached to film the incident. His dashboard cam captured the rest of the interaction. The video evidence does not support the bolded statements.
In the video from World’s Wildest Police Videos, the script has John Bunnell focus on making sure we agree that the police officer doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, deal with a naked man. Because, ick, right?
Law enforcement officials are taught how to handle all kinds of different criminals. But let’s face it. Some, they’d rather not handle at all.
This isn’t exactly the kind of perp the cop wants to get into a wrestling match with.
The video also received the Top 20 Most Shocking Moments treatment. The facts titillate and remind us that police video is entertainment for the masses, even when it involves the use of excessive, potentially-lethal force. The camera footage is used to mock the accused and to further entrench the idea that a police officer may use a taser if arresting a suspect would involve physical effort or put him in an uncomfortable situation. Even with video, we don’t reject the use of the taser here. It repeats the now-accepted belief that the taser is a substitute for police work rather than a substitute for the officer’s firearm.
Video can be helpful and should be used. Without a commitment to changing how we use them now, I’m skeptical that video will be used in a way that compensates for existing problems in our thinking or teaches us to respect rights more. Too often we adhere to:
- Cops are heroic
- The cop tasered a criminal
- Tasering a criminal is heroic
The video lets us continue that nonsense.