Ah yes, the latest panacea of the social justice crowd and the well-intentioned–“social justice” and “well-intentioned” are mutually exclusive–body cameras for police. We are now at an interesting point of confluence in thoughtless public demand and technology. Technology has developed to the point that such devices and their recording media are actually practical and relatively affordable. It is actually possible to put some kind of video/audio recording device on individual police officers.
It would be best, however, to stop and think a bit, and to remember a particularly pertinent aphorism:
Be careful what you ask for: you just might get it.
What’s All This About Privacy?
I’m a high school English teacher, and I keep a careful eye out for student’s smart phones. I don’t want any of them surreptitiously recording each other, or me. That’s not because I might be caught doing anything embarrassing or unprofessional–I use every minute of class time as well as possible and am careful not to say or do anything I wouldn’t want broadcast on the World Wide Web; that’s a habit from my police days–but because I am tasked with protecting my student’s privacy. To a somewhat less specific degree, so are the police.
No matter what a student or I might say or do, software allowing all manner of manipulation of video and audio is readily available. Imagine what the fertile imaginations of teenagers might do to a video clip they’re just itching to post on YouTube. Even without video “photoshopping,” there is much about which to be wary.
Consider when most people meet police officers: when they’re at their best and brightest? When they’re made up, stunningly dressed and ready for their close-up? Not so. Most people meet police officers at some of the worst, most embarrassing, most shameful, most distressing and emotional moments of their lives. These are not times they want memorialized in anyone’s photo album.
Now consider the fact that all police actions are public records. Every report I wrote, every recording I made, every photograph I ever took as a police officer is available to the public. I don’t have any problem with that material being so available, but I’m certain a great many people whose names and personal foibles and tragedies appear in those reports, recordings and photographs would have a significant problem with it, and reasonably so.
Imagine how such video can be taken out of context, used to manipulate, even blackmail. Imagine how what was only a momentary, honest expression of emotion or frustration might look when it pops up in a custody battle or a divorce proceeding, or a lawsuit. Imagine how an innocent gesture or statement could be made to look incriminating in a criminal trial.
What’s All This About Police Discretion?
“But the police wouldn’t have to have their cameras on all the time; would they? Can’t I tell them to turn it off?”
This is where technology and common sense meet and crash head on. If a police agency is going to buy and issue cameras and recording gear, they either have to have the recording device/medium on the officer’s person, or a wireless transmitter capable of transmitting the video back to a receiver and recording device in his patrol car, for example. The current state of the art tends to be, as illustrated by the photos at the top of this article, not exactly small or stealthy–most are in the $400-$500 range–and smaller, stealthier technology is much more expensive.
The bigger and bulkier anything hanging on an officer’s uniform is, the more likely it is to be ripped off, dropped, broken or in general, mangled, in day to day use.
The higher the resolution of the camera and recording, the more battery power and memory are required. In case of a receiver in a police vehicle, there are very real range limitations, and the probability of interference at the worst possible times increases greatly.
Keep in mind that honest officers–and sorry cop haters, most officers are honest, hard-working people–would love to have absolutely clear and properly framed video of a great many situations they encounter. It’s just very, very hard to accomplish that.
Let’s play police officer! Draw a camera on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the center of your chest on a buttoned shirt. Keep in mind the lens of your camera is sort of wide-angled, which means it will probably be able to take in two people standing shoulder to shoulder, but probably nothing else, and it might be able to take in their bodies from upper thigh to a bit over the top of the head, but a lot of that depends on how short, tall or wide they are and where you position it on your body.
Now, while talking to an imaginary person, shift your weight from foot to foot; gesture; point while extending your arm; bend slightly forward at the waist to look downward, turn to the left or right, lift one arm over your head; hold your notepad in front of you and write some notes as the person you’re interviewing talks to you. Now hug that person and imagine you’re struggling with them. Think for a moment. What did the last 30 seconds of video look like? Human beings are really pathetic stable camera platforms.
Anyone that has ever spent any real time working with telescopic sights on rifles has to laugh and shake their heads in amazement at the depictions of such things in movies. The images are always rock steady and razor sharp. Right. The same thing is true when you stick a small, wide angle camera on the front of someone’s body. The results won’t win any Academy Awards for cinematography.
The same is true for the audio track involved. Police officers work in the rain and snow, and particularly the wind. They’re surrounded constantly by significant ambient noise of all kinds, conversation, street noises, engine nose, radio traffic. With experience in life, we learn to filter out that which we don’t want or need to hear. We can do that because we carry an incredibly flexible and powerful computer around in our heads. Microphones attached to recorders can’t do that. They record it all, and when it really matters, what’s most audible on the recording is not what they want and need to hear.
“Oh, but they can replay it and use all kinds of high tech filter stuff.” Right. You’ve been watching CSI: Imaginationville again. Those guys have holographic displays that reenact complex human actions in real time, alterable with just a few keystrokes. Audio and video can be filtered and enhanced to some degree, but most people and most police don’t have the technology, the expertise, the money or the time, and the kind of magic seen on TV and in the movies is just that: magic.
Usually, whatever was recorded is what you’ve got.
If we assume police officers can use their discretion to turn their cameras on and off, we run into all manner of problems. Here are just a few:
* Police work is 99% same old, same old and 1% sheer terror. No officer can know when he’s going to need video. Things can go bad in milliseconds in the middle of what looks like a completely tranquil and safe situation. Practically speaking, an officer needs to have his camera on whenever he’s out of his car or engaging the public in any way. If this sounds like a good idea, review “What’s All This About Privacy?”
* An officer accidently forgetting to turn off his camera can find himself recording a visit to the urinal, uttering sweet nothings to his girlfriend or wife on a phone call, recording his spoken-out-loud thoughts as people do incredibly stupid things in his line of sight…you get the picture, and so would the public. If it’s on his recorder, it’s public record, and you can bet defense attorneys would use such things to help really bad guys get out of convictions they richly deserve.
* If officers are going to have their cameras on at all, attorneys–particularly defense attorneys–are going to demand they have them on all the time. If they don’t, they’ll imply the police purposely turned them off to hide something. It won’t matter that a battery died, or a connection came loose, or cold weather killed the battery, or mud, or vomit, or blood, or–you name it–splashed on the camera lens and the officer didn’t notice it until later, being busy dealing with the mud, vomit, blood or you name it.
* It’s impossible to sound like a priest, or even a completely literate person, all the time. Have you ever read a printed transcript of a conversation? People sound like morons. This is so because one need not engage in perfectly constructed sentences to be understood in conversation. Listening to the recording, they often sound even worse. I sound like Kermit the Frog on tape. Imagine if you had to worry about every word you said, every thought you wanted to translate into speech. Imagine every failure at that impossible standard is available to the public for ridicule or exploitation.
If officers have to record everything, then we get into real technology problems. Imagine a patrol force of 100 officers, recording 24 hours of video/audio a day. State records retention laws vary, but most police records such as reports, must be kept indefinitely. Video is absolutely in the same category. I’ve found myself testifying about minute observations made in a traffic accident eight years earlier, a case no one would have imagined would ever end up in court. Without good reports, I would not have had a clue.
Every officer would have to essentially–Matrix-like–download his shift at the end of a day, and someone, likely many someones, would have to ensure that all of that data was catalogued and stored and easily and quickly retrievable. And of course, all of that would have to be backed up.
But couldn’t officers only download the important stuff? How do they know today what might end up being important in six months? And if they pick and choose what to download, defense attorneys will argue they’re hiding things and get the entire system invalidated. This would not be an unreasonable argument. Officers would delete things that inexplicably become important months and years later. How would they defend those spur of the moment decisions?
The expense of purchasing, updating, maintaining and working with such technology is likely beyond what most law enforcement agencies can possibly afford. When you’re struggling just to put enough blue-clad bodies in police cars to man a minimally-staffed shift, this kind of advancement isn’t at the top of your list. It’s not even on your wish list.
The few times in my career it would have been great to have video of my actions, it would almost certainly have been so blurred as to have been useless as I grappled, ran, fell, got covered with mud, blood and vomit, etc. The only kind of video that would have been truly useful was the kind you see in the movies, filmed simultaneously from multiple angles, with perfect lighting, and a boom mic hanging overhead to capture every nuance. It would have been nice, but it’s not nearly what people think.
And the biggest problem? Even if the technology were cheap, foolproof, never embarrassed anyone, and produced uniformly perfect, 3D results, it wouldn’t make any difference to the thugs, race hustlers, social justice Marxists and corrupt politicians anyway.
The takedown and arrest of Eric Garner was filmed from start to finish, and the quality of that video is much superior to what one might expect from police body cams. We also know that Garner didn’t die from a chokehold. He died because he was morbidly obese, he had many deadly health problems, and died of a heart attack. For an accurate medical perspective on what killed Garner, visit this article by G. Wesley Clark, MD.
Some people viewing the Garner video call it “horrifying,” and “brutal.” I call it a reasonably tranquil takedown of a huge, very strong person just short of violently resisting arrest. No one was beating him; no one was tasing him; no one was kicking him, hitting him with batons, no brutality at all. They just did what police officers always do when they have enough manpower: they overpower them and take them to the ground and handcuff them, and they do this so they don’t have to hurt them. Garner’s dangerously fragile medical conditions did the rest.
Most importantly, as I noted in “Eric Garner And The Rule Of Law,” no one applied a chokehold.
People often say: “video doesn’t lie.” Not quite. Video shows what happened from a single perspective. It doesn’t tell the whole story, and it often omits or misrepresents context. I’ve often seen video of police officers taking people down, completely aware that it would look absolutely terrible to those that don’t understand the dynamics of violence, the laws of arrest, and police procedure, but equally aware that the officers were not using excessive force and were acting entirely within the law.
You don’t buy my argument on the Garner case? Fine. Ignore that one then and consider the case of Antonio Martin, who, on surveillance video, from multiple angles, pulled a 9mm handgun on a police officer in Berkley, Missouri and stuck it in his face. He ended up quite dead as a result. Unfortunately for the officer, Martin was 18, and black, and the shooting took place only about two miles from where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and it took place while the uproar over Michael Brown is still ongoing (on 12-23-14). Oh yes: the poor cop was, apparently–you saw this coming, didn’t you?–white.
In this case, we actually have the gun Martin pointed, point-blank–at the officer. We have him–not an unarmed teenager, but a very armed teenager/actual adult–actually pointing the gun at a police officer at very close range, on video. The video absolutely depicts what the officer said happened. There is no question about it. And did this satisfy the thugs, race hustlers and social justice agitators? CNN reports:
Protesters late Tuesday and early Wednesday gathered around an ethnically diverse group of dozens of police officers, who stood between them and the scene. People in the crowd screamed at police. Others spoke more calmly.
What looked like a firework exploded near a gas pump, scattering people and temporarily filling the area with thick, white smoke, video from CNN affiliate KMOV showed.
Four people were arrested on suspicion of assaulting officers, Belmar said. One police officer was sent to an emergency room after injuring himself while trying to get away from the firework, Belmar said.
Another officer was treated at a hospital after being hit in the head with a rock or a brick, Belmar said.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer David Carson said some of the protesters damaged police cars. CNN showed images of one squad car with a large dent in its side.
KMOV video showed a white plume rising at another location down the street. Belmar said someone had tried to set a fire at a nearby store, but someone extinguished it.
Protesters took to the streets of Berkeley, Mo., for a second night Wednesday after a white police officer killed a black teenager who police said pointed a gun at him.
Dozens of protesters marched on Interstate 170, shutting it down for a brief time before heading to the Mobil gas station where Antonio Martin, 18, was shot and killed Tuesday night.
The shooting happened about 5 miles from Ferguson, where a white police officer fatally shot unarmed Michael Brown in August, sparking months of civil unrest.
NewsChannel 5 crews saw some people trying to get into a storefront near the gas station during the protests. Other protesters tried to stop the group.
Berkeley Police Chief Frank McCall told KMOV-TV that six to eight people were arrested.
As the situation escalated, protesters surrounded NewsChannel 5 crews and told them to leave the scene. The crews left.
Hmm. That doesn’t sound like earnest protestors anxious to get their message of peace and non-violent change out to the public does it?
There can be no doubt that one of the primary premises for police body cameras is faulty: video doesn’t prevent thugs, race hustlers, social justice Marxists and politicians from stirring up unwarranted, opportunistic violence and keeping people at each other’s throats.
There can also be no doubt that such video, if it works and actually captures what one would hope it captured, can keep police officers from falling victim to false accusations–at least as long as corrupt special prosecutors aren’t involved as in the George Zimmerman case.
Might body cameras also improve police behavior? Perhaps, and to a small degree, but bad and malicious police officers will always find ways around such things, and honest officers don’t need the incentive in the first place.
But as I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t just about the police. There is much, much more involved, and it’s a great deal more personal than most people imagine. “Ha! I’d never be one of those pathetic people captured on a police video!” I know a great many good, decent, every day people that would have said just that before they wound up sloppy drunk, bloody, stupid, obscene, or simply in a terrible, wrenching, heart-breaking all-too-human drama not of their own making in front of a police dashboard camera.
It’s not all grim, but you wouldn’t want much of life on video for playback. A true example:
When I was a very young cop, my fellow cop roommate was one of the nicest guys you could imagine, and he talked and acted very much like Gomer Pyle, including blushing neon red whenever he was embarrassed, which, in the coal and oil boom town where we worked, happened to him regularly.
One night he was patrolling a oil drilling company’s storage yard when he heard a female voice calling to him. He parked and got out of his car and that young woman, entirely naked, trotted up to him and latched onto him like an octopus, wrapping her arms and legs around him and professing her ever-lasting gratitude. I arrived just in time to see his saucer-sized eyes, and his amazed exclamations of “Gawrsh!”
The young lady, it seems, was engaging in a drunken romantic liaison with her roughneck (oil field worker) boyfriend in his company truck when they had a rather abrupt and dramatic falling out and he kicked her out of the vehicle and left–with her clothing. She’d been hiding there among the pipes until her knight in blushing armor arrived.
Police officers will tell you that most people look better with their clothing on. This was one of the rare exceptions to that rule, but I quickly and gallantly retrieved a blanket from the trunk of my car–averting my eyes as best I could–and peeled her off my poor roomie. While he might have enjoyed having that video–oh, you didn’t think some cops did that sort of thing?–I doubt she would like to have that available for public consumption.
Life is unpredictable and often, utterly surprising. How much of that do you want on public record at your local law enforcement agency, and how many tax dollars do you want to spend for the privilege?