I ran across this video yesterday of an interaction between a law enforcement officer and a young black man in Pontiac, MI that as far as I can tell was filmed on Thanksgiving morning. The video graphically and starkly shows a young man being harassed for the crime of walking while being black on a Thursday morning, also helpfully illustrates the power of video recording devices to prevent escalation of what could otherwise become dangerous situations:
I have long been a proponent of increased video recordings of the activities of police. This interaction helpfully indicates at least part of the reason why. Here we have an interaction between a young man who is clearly (and justifiably) resentful of the unjustified interruption of his daily routine by the police on a cold day where he did nothing wrong other than walk with his hands in his pockets. And despite the fact that there’s some clear level of resentment and mistrust that goes both ways in this interaction, at the end of the day everyone walks way peacefully and we have a full record of what occurred, both from the perspective of the young man and from the cop. And here we have a scenario where we can post this peaceful video on YouTube and have discussions about why these interactions take place in the absence of any dead young men or rioting in the streets. And I think that the fact that both parties knew they were being recorded played no small hand in that.
Now, in the situation in Ferguson, it’s probable that no amount of cameras would have served to de-escalate that situation. But after the fact, wouldn’t it be better to have some sort of actual record of what occurred? Wouldn’t it be great to not have conflicting eyewitness statements about whether Michael Brown had his hands up or was charging Darren Wilson? Wouldn’t it be better if we had video? I think it’s incontrovertible that if we did, one way or the other, this situation would be resolved much more peacefully than it currently is.
To my mind, the first and easiest solution, at the state-wide level, is for states to pass laws making it explicitly clear that the recording of police officers is legal. Judicial precedent makes it clear that it is legal under the First Amendment, but it would nonetheless be helpful to send a message to the police that the recording of their activities is encouraged and that attempting to prevent the (peaceful) recording of them will subject them to at least civil liability. The move by states like Illinois to make the recording of cops illegal is facially insane in addition to being unconstitutional. Good cops who are doing their job correctly have no possible objection to being recorded as it protects them as much or more than the general public. Any cop who objects to being recorded – provided that the recorder maintains a sufficient distance to allow him or her to do his job effectively – is not a person who should be allowed to wear a badge, full stop.
Second, it is long past time to make body cams on law enforcement officers much more ubiquitous and even mandatory in some locations. The objections to these are well taken in some cases but definitely not insurmountable. On the issue of cost, a body cam unit that can record an entire shift costs about $150 to the general public – police departments buying them en masse could doubtless get a better deal. According to the Ferguson PD, they had already approved the purchase of body cams for all officers prior to the Michael Brown incident, but didn’t have money in the budget to purchase them. Somehow, however, the Ferguson PD had enough money to purchase APCs which they immediately deployed. I don’t know exactly what an APC costs, but I am betting with confidence that you could buy a whole bunch of body cams for the cost of one. In many cases, the ounce of prevention will be worth several pounds of cure. Privacy concerns are also well taken but not insurmountable as well – if the policy is implemented thoughtfully under a HIPPA like regime that regulates the storage and dissemination of such information, it would not be necessary for any information collected by these recorders to be used for an improper purpose and improper dissemination of such information could be prevented.
This is an idea whose time has come. We are long past the time where disputes as high stakes as the one unfolding in Ferguson should be left to he-said she-said, especially in an era where large parts of the populace tend to automatically believe that cops are telling the truth and another part tends to automatically believe they are lying. It’s time to have the best evidence available to us rather than speculation and conjecture.