So I’ve been thinking about the police and their expectations of privacy lately. The stories are all over the news: Cops try to arrest somebody and are filmed doing so. Tensions escalate as the cops see the photographers (still or video) as threats to their authority. Some states are enacting laws to make it illegal to photograph the police in the course of their duties.
This is stupid on so many levels. London, England has a population of around 7.6 million people, and has deployed on the order of 10,000 video surveillance cameras to watch the population. The average person in England’s largest city has absolutely no expectation of immunity from surveillance at any time.
Cell phone cameras are now ubiquitous. There is nothing that can happen in any first world country that won’t have a dozen people pointing their phones at the event. Nothing from a car crash to a heart attack to a mugging will escape somebody recording the aftermath.
So how is it that a cop can expect that they are somehow above being noteworthy enough for their actions to be recorded? If you and your cop buddies are standing in a circle beating a subdued suspect with your martial arts batons, you will be seen and recorded. If you and your cop buddies are standing around while you kick a subdued suspect, threatening to stomp the “Mexican Piss” out of them, you will be seen and recorded. And if you punch a High School girl in the face while trying to arrest another High School girl who had been jaywalking, you will be seen and recorded. This one scares me the most. These three are from Seattle, and unless we have a local epidemic of power mad cops, I'm sure it's happening where you live as well. Oh, and don't forget what is perhaps the most famous of all cop beating videos.
The solution here is not to try to create a new subset of crime by making it illegal to film cops in their daily activities. Individual citizens are not able to escape the surveillance apparatus in any modern city. How can the cops expect to be immune from the all-seeing eye? They can’t. No law will make it impossible to record your actions. Cell phone cameras, dashboard cameras, and overhead surveillance cameras are able to record our every waking moment, and cops cannot be an exception.
I suggest that if cops don’t want a recording made of their beating of a suspect, then they should refrain from beating suspects. If they don’t want to have a recording of them punching a suspect in the face, maybe they shouldn’t punch people in the face. As the overhead cameras are showing us, if you don’t want to be filmed and caught doing stupid things, maybe you shouldn’t do stupid things. You will be seen and recorded, with the images displayed for the world to see.
The police already have broad powers in their interactions with the public. If somebody is resisting arrest, the police already have the power to deprive that person of their life. A person can be shot, tazed, crippled, choked, have their limbs broken, blinded, tortured and killed by the police, and a review board will find that their actions were justified more often than not. What a pictorial recording, either video or still, brings to the party is a dispassionate view of just what has happened. I dare say that if you’re afraid of what a photographer might record, then perhaps you shouldn’t do things that you’re afraid of having photographed.
Now I’ve got all of the sympathy in the world for the police. They have an impossible job in very difficult circumstances. This sympathy was generated by an event that I experienced in High School back in the day. I was taking an Administration of Justice class, presumably offered as part of a recruiting effort by the local police department. One of the lessons involved a student volunteer bring brought to the front of the room, and being handed a police style revolver pistol in a belt holster, and being told to tell a suspect (the class instructor) to remove his hands from his jacket pockets. Sure, the instructor removed his hands from his jacket, only to shoot the student volunteer “cop” with a small, easily concealed handgun. Dead cop, tomorrow’s headline, never having had a chance to draw the pistol from the holster. Next exercise: student was allowed to draw the pistol and aim it in the general direction of the instructor “suspect”. Same result, as the small handgun was just too quick to be pulled and used on the now dead cop. Third exercise: the student cop was told to actively point the weapon at the suspect, again demanding that the suspect take his hands from his jacket pockets. By this time the tensions in the room were high as the suspect removed his hands. Of course the student cop shot the suspect before the suspect could shoot the cop, except that this time the suspect had a small black comb in his hands, not a small and easily concealed pistol. The student cop had now shot an innocent unarmed citizen. Try living THAT down at the precinct house!
I learned a couple of lessons taking that class that have stayed with me to this day. Cops have a dangerous and impossible job. The forces of anarchy are simply too overwhelming for them to “prevent crime”. They can instantly die in the most mundane interactions with the public. And that they just love them some speedy car chases. My point here isn’t to claim that the police are out of control, running wild and gunning down the innocent. Far from it. I do want to point out that the police have an impossible job to perform, and while their own personal methods of dealing with this struggle vary from individual to individual, there are simply some things that we as concerned citizens just cannot tolerate. First, while your job is impossible, you should be held accountable for the actions that you take, especially when the consequences of those actions are severe. If someone is killed, crippled, or maimed by your actions, you better be able to justify it. It is impossible to stomp the “Mexican Piss” out of somebody, so don’t bother trying. If a suspect is seen to be prone, cuffed, or unresisting by the reasonable expectations of a person viewing a video of the event, you are not allowed to punch them, kick them, or ram a baton up their ass. You are allowed to use reasonable force to make an arrest, but a camera and a jury or a review board with civilian oversight get to decide what is reasonable or not. Making what you do invisible is NOT going to make your actions suddenly become reasonable. If you don’t want your own mother to pass judgment on your actions, then consider your actions before you act in the hot blood of a high speed chase. Every time you kick a subdued suspect, you paint every cop in the world as dirty. Every time you kill, by bullet, Taser, or baton, you reinforce the us-versus-them mentality of those whose lives you patrol around and interact with, making it more, rather than less, likely that you will have an out-of-control encounter at some future date, and that can only make your job harder.
Imagine that your entire life was recorded, subject to playback at some future date. Would you live your life different? Especially if you carry a gun and a badge...
Also, don't taze my Granny!
This page is authored and maintained by Rich Webb.You can send E-mail to me by following this link to the contact page. And feel free to contact me if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I remain, however, perfectly capable of ignoring your useless opinion...