Tag: video cameras

Cops and Cameras: The Future of Policing

The USA Today editorial board is criticizing the use of state wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens who tape on-duty police officers. I have written on this extensively: here, here, here and here. The editorial joins the Washington Examiner and Washington Post in this critique.

USA Today’s opposing view (presented by two AFL-CIO police union officials) provides this comment:

In today’s environment, police officers have to assume that every action they take is captured on tape, somewhere. They must be comfortable that everything they say or do in the course of their duties may be shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see. Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.

This is often true. The recordings that prompt public outcry are sometimes “gotcha” moments where the camera only captures the use of force with no context.

Here is an example from Maryland that shows officers arresting a woman during the Preakness Stakes. At the end of the video, an officer says to the person recording the arrest: “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

As the USA Today editorial notes, this is a misreading of Maryland law that is kept alive by the prosecution of Anthony Graber and others who record the police. My commentary on the issue is here. As Carlos Miller points out, Maryland prosecutors come to different conclusions about the scope of the state’s wiretap law.

The real problem (besides the fact that the officer is misstating the law to prevent public accountability) is that the officer felt it necessary to stop the filming in the first place. This arrest was justified. The woman bleeding on the floor assaulted another patron, and when two officers responded to the incident, she assaulted them as well. This was a justified and necessary arrest. Whether the level of force was justified is another question, and one that is harder to assess because there is no recording of it.

Here is the solution – officers recording the incidents:

A handful of police departments already have their officers wearing video and audio recording devices. While I said a while ago that gun-mounted cameras are a good tool for police transparency and accountability, this head-mounted camera is a better option. It captures the prelude to the use of force, and doesn’t provide an incentive for the officer to draw his or her weapon sooner to get the event on film.

This is the future of American law enforcement. Departments will embrace this technology because it is a defensive measure against public outcry over the next “gotcha” video filmed with a cell phone and potential lawsuits. Law enforcement agencies will release their own footage of high-publicity events to show that their officers were complying with department guidelines on the use of force. The presence of a camera in an interaction between a cop and a citizen may also serve to keep behavior more civil since both parties know that the world is watching.

In 10 or 15 years, this technology will be ubiquitous just as police cruiser dashboard cameras are now, and law enforcement officers and the public will be better off for it.

University of Maryland Beating Prompts Investigations

Following the home basketball victory against Duke, University of Maryland students took to the streets to celebrate. Prince George’s County Police, along with mounted officers from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, responded to disperse an unruly crowd. One student skipped for joy toward police in riot gear, then stopped as he neared two mounted officers. Prince George’s officers rushed the student, beating him with clubs until he fell to the ground, and then continuing to deliver blows as he lay on the pavement. Video of the incident:

The student, John McKenna, was charged with felonies on suspicion of assaulting officers on horseback and their mounts. The charges against McKenna were dropped yesterday without comment, and now the officers responsible for the beating are under scrutiny. One of the three officers who beat McKenna has been suspended, and as soon as the other two are identified they face parallel sanction. Prince George’s prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation as well.

While this story is moving in the right direction, the video contradicting the charges against McKenna and putting police brutality on record made all the difference. Good reason to be wary of laws prohibiting photography or video of police officers.

Do Bring a Phonecam to a Snowball Fight

By now, you’ve probably heard the story—and seen the video.  During the weekend’s Snowpocalypse™ in DC, a gaggle of young urbanites, using Twitter and other social media, announced a big group snowball fight at the corner of 14th and U Streets.  For a while, it was all good fun, with the participants periodically stopping the skirmish to help dislodge a motorist for a snowdrift, amid collective cheers. But an off-duty plainclothes cop whose Hummer had been hit by a few snowballs lost his cool—and advanced on the crowd to berate them with his gun drawn. You’d think an angry, out-of-uniform guy brandishing a gun might set off a dangerous stampede in the snow, but true to form, the DC crowd responded with chanting: “You don’t bring a gun to a snowball fight!”

Initially, the Metropolitan Police Department “reviewed the evidence” and concluded that the officer had only been holding a cell phone after all—folks who’d said it was a gun must have just imagined it, what with all that snow. But it turns out there were a whole lot of video cameras and phonecams there, and still shots and recordings began to circulate on the Internet, making it impossible to deny what had happened.  By Monday, the chief of police had issued a statement calling the officer’s behavior “totally inappropriate” and announcing that he’d be relegated to desk duty pending further inquiry.

As anyone who follows the excellent work of my colleague Radley Balko will be well aware, things often play out quite differently—with departments circling the wagons, and no serious accountability for far more egregious abuses of authority. But video—increasingly ubiquitous and portable—can make a difference. And it strikes me that, in one sense, it helps remedy other kinds of social inequality.  Reviewing that video of the snowball scene, you might point out that the crowd is full of white 20-somethings, many of whom (given the city’s demographics) are almost certainly college-educated professionals, while police misconduct toward less privileged groups is far more likely to be ignored.

What is privilege, though? In cases like these, it consists largely in the ability to be seen and heard—to attract media attention, to articulate your story in a clear and compelling way, to be considered credible by press and the community. All of these, unfortunately, depend enormously on class, status, race, and education. Unless there’s video. And video is democratic these days. You’d have to poke around a bit to find even a bottom-of-the-line cheapo cell phone that didn’t come with at least a still camera, and likely video capture to boot. So while there’s been some attention paid to the potential of this kind of “Little Brother” surveillance to increase accountability—the to lessen disparity in power between citizen and cop—it’s also worth stressing the way it can lessen certain kinds of disparities between citizens.

That said, and just going by memory, it seems like most of the stories I encounter in this vein still involve white, middle-class, college-educated young people. One possibility is that this shows I’m wrong, and that other aspects of privilege still play into their videos circulating while others languish. Another, though, is just that they’re both accustomed to this kind of routine use of technology and sharing of data, and that they take their social power for granted. That is, it occurs more naturally to them that the right response to this kind of misbehavior is to record and circulate it. If it’s mostly the latter, we’re on an interesting precipice, where the main remaining precondition for the leveling effect to kick in is just awareness that the other preconditions are in place.  If that’s right, the next few years should be interesting.