Never Show Him Insolence, Confidence/Cause Who Supplies the Evidence

by Henry on July 1, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Emily Good was arrested for video-taping a police officer—despite the fact that in Rochester, New York, video-taping cops isn’t actually a crime. Accordingly the charges were dropped yesterday. Here’s a defense of Good’s demonstrably illegal arrest … I’m really trying to wrap my head around this: In what world do we defend the right of people to be arrested for non-crimes? Obviously this one. But it can’t continue this way. I deeply believe, that in a world of viral video, it slowly erodes the brand and legitimacy of law enforcement. It’s already happened in many black communities, where the police are simply viewed as another power to be contended with. I’m sure, like a lot of you, I’ve had some talks about my son about how he should interact with the police. “Trust” is a small portion of that conversation.

Here’s a simple proposal – which I am stealing shamelessly from Charlie Stross’s near-future sf novels Halting State and Rule 34 (which is every bit as good as its predecessor – I’m waiting for it to come out before I write more about it). Rather than relying on viral video from random passers-by as a possible deterrent to bad behavior, police should be required to wear a perpetually running video camera with audio recording while they are carrying out their duties, with undeletable footage that could be subpoena-ed in the case of either an arrest by the police officer or a complaint by a directly affected individual within a reasonable time period.

This is now well within the realm of technical feasibility as far as I can see, and should not be vastly expensive (certainly no more expensive than e.g. the data retention requirements that police and legal authorities impose on ISPs and telcos). I can imagine some significant problems (e.g. with respect to the privacy rights of third parties caught by police footage), but they don’t seem to me to be insuperable. Of course police could have ‘accidents’ with the technology so that it didn’t work at key moments – but if this happened systematically, it would be a boon for defense lawyers. The actual objections would (I suspect) be more based on sociological arguments than on technology or costs. Police claim (see here for an argument to this effect that we guest-hosted on CT) that they require a certain amount of discretion to do their job properly. Giving the public the right to look over their shoulders in the case of arrests or complaints would severely curtail, or perhaps even eliminate that discretion. There may be something to that argument – but I’m skeptical of it. Much of it reduces down, I think to an implicit Jack Nicholson “you can’t handle the truth” claim – that in order to do their job properly, police officers sometimes have to cut corners in ways that might not look appropriate in the light of day, even if they were appropriate under real world circumstances. Perhaps this is so – but if it’s so, it should be debated rather than taken as a given, since even under the most generous possible interpretation, it also allows a lot of shitty and self-serving behavior along the lines that Ta-Nehisi is complaining about.

{ 69 comments }

1

Bruce Baugh 07.01.11 at 4:03 pm

Henry, I’d feel more enthusiastic about that kind of proposal if we didn’t live in a world that already has Andrew Breitbart in it. I simply don’t have to stretch much to imagine cops not currently being taped setting up a scene, and then those who are being taped herding their targets into it, and voila, photographic proof of something nasty. That already happens with planted evidence, of course, but having it recorded would make it look more convincing to a lot of people.

2

Michael Mouse 07.01.11 at 4:11 pm

This is already happening, in places, to some success:
Body-worn video cameras have been hailed a success by Grampian Police after their first year in operation. [BBC News]

The police (as quoted in the story) appear very pleased with the extra evidence-gathering it does for them, and think it’s saving them money on needless court appearances.

In the UK, at least, any civil disobedience situation of any note at all is likely to be bristling with cameras held by the protestors, the police, and onlookers.

Sooner we get to the real-world implementation of David Brin’s Transparent Society the better, I say.

3

Phil Ruse 07.01.11 at 4:17 pm

Terrific idea; let’s apply it to all public sector workers! Seriously, if it can be applied to the Police then the same argument could be used for hospital workers and teachers and any other workers in a ‘position of trust’. And that makes me kind of uneasy.

4

Satan Mayo 07.01.11 at 4:20 pm

Terrific idea; let’s apply it to all public sector workers! Seriously, if it can be applied to the Police then the same argument could be used for hospital workers and teachers and any other workers in a ‘position of trust’. And that makes me kind of uneasy.

The other public sector workers whose jobs sometimes involve intimidating people, beating people up, and shooting people, certainly. Prison guards, definitely.

5

P O'Neill 07.01.11 at 4:34 pm

To apply a hypothetical to a topical example which might illustrate the problems, would we be feeling better or worse about this idea if, say, 3 weeks ago, the New York Post had put on its website “leaked” footage of a disheveled and sullen DSK in the initial hours of his arrest, getting in a little Perp-Cam before the later Perp-Walk?

6

yeliabmit 07.01.11 at 4:36 pm

Another objection to continuous filming of an officer’s duty time that I read somewhere (I can’t recall where) was advanced by a police union. The argument is that it’s extremely stressful to be continuously surveilled during your entire shift, and they’re afraid that the recordings would be used for work-monitoring purposes against officers. The Scottish police in Michael Mouse’s link don’t seem to have this objection, and to be honest it seemed like kind of weak tea.

The idea that officers have to cut corners to do their job is one I’ve heard from police before. The problem is really one of getting the police to conform with the requirements of the rule of law, which is a matter of training and changing the culture of policing. It would help if TV and movies didn’t glorify the McBanes and Dirty Harry characters quite so much, because it helps feed the perception that criminals have all the power on their side simply by being entitled to due process.

The ubiquitous camera recordings from the G8 and G20 protests in Toronto are really causing a huge amount of damage to the credibility of the police force, because it’s quite clear that the police didn’t just overreact, but implemented tactics and strategies that were disconnected to the actual events. Old-style newspaper photos accompanying stories would have left a lot more ambiguity about whether the police were “provoked” than these complete recordings of the events have done.

E.G.: http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2010-2011/youshouldhavestayedathome/

Of course, in Canada the paradigm example has been the 4 RCMP officers who are now facing charges of perjury relating to the death of Robert Dziekanski:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Dzieka%C5%84ski_Taser_incident

In any number of such occurrences in the past, the police have been able to lie to protect themselves and the mere testimony of witnesses has been given lesser weight. But the presence of a camera phone has changed all of that.

7

Morat20 07.01.11 at 4:43 pm

If they’re worried about privacy issues, that’s not too difficult. Remove the actual data recording and storage from police to an independent third party (or at least a “new” specific branch) and require anyone other than the officer himself (including the union, Internal Affairs) or the defense lawyer to either require a warrant or the officer AND the defendent’s permission.

Add in nasty rules for disclosing the video to the police, and strengthen the relevent FOIA (for the US) and privacy laws a bit for this type of video in particular.

In short, the cop should be able to easily review the video to write his reports. The defense lawyer should be able to see it to prepare his case, and the judge and jury should be able to see it. Anyone else — internal affairs, the news media — needs either permission or some over-riding circumstance tilted towards the public good.

8

Aaron Boyden 07.01.11 at 5:07 pm

Secrecy is always used to hide incompetence and corruption. Lots and lots of very bad incompetence and corruption. There may be cases where the benefits of the secrecy are big enough to justify this cost, but they’re very, very rare, much rarer than people seem to imagine. Ordinary police activities are certainly not such cases; as Morat notes, the privacy concerns are easily addressed, so taping all police activity is clearly an excellent idea.

9

Adrian Kelleher 07.01.11 at 5:18 pm

Technically, adding ‘always on’ video recording into a closed-loop encrypted system with playback but not copy/record functions available to officers etc. is straightforward.

New PCs have this feature as an anti-piracy measure already, so having the recordings handled by a third party agency without limiting the (legitimate) usefulness of the system to either the police or their overseers is possible. How long such a broadly deployed system would remain secure is anybody’s guess, mind; the stakes would be high.

10

Nepotism is Domestic Terrorism 07.01.11 at 5:21 pm

Terrific idea; let’s apply it to all public sector workers! Seriously, if it can be applied to the Police then the same argument could be used for hospital workers and teachers and any other workers in a ‘position of trust’. And that makes me kind of uneasy.

#####

Further, let’s apply it to the executives, board members, and employees of every publicly traded company. If we are going to base our retirement and pension systems on the 401(k) investment process, then the executives, board members, and employees of every publicly traded company must operate in a completely transparent environment.

Let’s also apply it to the federal, state, and local elected officials; their staff members; and the lobbyists that represent every publicly company. If a federal, state, or local elected official takes campaign contributions from a publicly traded company, a 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 organization funded by a publicly traded company or the employee of a publicly traded company, decides regulatory (or lack of regulatory) oversight of that company, or deals with the lobbyists representing that company, that elected official, the publicly traded company, its employees, and the lobbyists representing said firm should be open to the highest standards of transparency and the free flow of information.

Lastly, let’s apply this same requirement to the executives, board members, and employees of privately held firms, hedge funds, and the like that have direct government contracts, lobby for various types of legislation, or finance the campaigns of federal, state, and local officials. As these privately held firms deal with the government and invest in the same system as the 401(k)-based pension program, such organizations, up to and including the proudest of patriots, Charles and David Koch, should readily make each and every one of their activities open to the same transparency and public examination.

11

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.01.11 at 5:39 pm

It’s okay to mount a cam (or two) on a police car, but probably not on a person. People are entitled to privacy.

12

L2P 07.01.11 at 5:52 pm

They have cameras for traffic stops in a lot of jurisdictions now.

One thing to keep in mind – whether if you police are videotaped for a whole shift, you’ll end up with a ot more arrests.

Most of this video is NOT going to be cops beating people up and taking bribes and writing false arrests and stuff like that. Most of it is going to be cops driving around talking to people, and occasionally making arrests (two arrests a shift is a lot; it can take an hour to process a guy, even after you’ve done the investigating). But mostly they’re NOT arresting people they certainly could have, NOT writing tickets they certainly could have, etc. This may or may not be a problem but once this actually gets documented in video, there’s going to be a lot of pressure for cops to arrest those guys.

There’s going to be management pressure to up stats. There’s going to be political pressure to make arrests look more evenhanded. There’s going to be reviews and a need to justify arresting one guy and not another unless you just arrest everybody. There’s going to be lawsuits with accusations of discriminatory enforcement and pressure to just arrest everybody to avoid the problems.

There certainly are cops that abuse their power, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a kid surrender a pipe and get sent on instead of getting caged, or seen a fight broken up and the guys moved on instead of going to jail. I’m not sure what would happen if that was on TV, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.

13

imajoebob 07.01.11 at 5:56 pm

To my mind, there is a much simpler answer. With all the private security cameras, traffic cameras, and omnipresence of random individuals using personal cameras, any and all expectation of privacy in a public area is a fallacy, and therefore should be codified.

If someone is an eyewitness to you breaking the law in any semblance of plain sight, whether that sight is your backyard or even your front window, it is admissible evidence. So the expectation of it being caught on camera should be the same, whether by accident or intent. Since what a police officer does in the course of his duties is, de facto, public activity, it is recordable. As a “participant,” you have every right to record it, up to the point it interferes with the officer, such as putting you in cuffs or a nut with a gun says, “shut it off or I’ll shoot!” But the actual recording is not, in and of itself, any interference.

As part of the codification, make it illegal to interfere with someone recording in a public place or situation. You can still protect private property rights (can’t record in a private business) , intellectual rights (concert/sporting event), etc.

Most ironic in this is the volumes of police officers recorded asking to search people or property, and when denied always – ALWAYS – come back with, “but if you have nothing to hide, why not just let me do it?”

14

Consumatopia 07.01.11 at 6:07 pm

In comment 11 in that thread on discretion, Brandon said “Most good cops like it when they are filmed. It invariably works in their favor.” Are transparency and discretion really at odds? The public is probably mostly okay with the kinds of disorderly conduct arrests that thread was talking about. I’m not sure that the presence of an officer-cam have greatly changed the Gates incident.

15

Consumatopia 07.01.11 at 6:08 pm

I meant to say “I’m not sure that the presence of an officer-cam would have greatly changed the Gates incident.”

16

Salient 07.01.11 at 6:15 pm

Rather than relying on viral video from random passers-by as a possible deterrent to bad behavior, police should be required to wear a perpetually running video camera with audio recording while they are carrying out their duties, with undeletable footage that could be subpoena-ed in the case of either an arrest by the police officer or a complaint by a directly affected individual within a reasonable time period.

I disagree strongly with this proposal. I’m not comfortable with giving police the extreme additional power this would grant. “We don’t have a warrant to search your house” becomes “oh when you opened your house door, the video camera we decided to mount on our ankles today saw some, uh, incriminating evidence behind you” becomes “limitations on search and seizure is such a cute quaint idea from those heady pre-video days.”

My dad (former law enforcement) and I used to watch Cops and he’d point out all the illegal (or troublesomely not-quite-legal, his word was “problematic” for it) things the cops were doing, even knowing they were being videotaped by a camera crew. In fact we suspected some of them of showing off for the camera, escalating situations rather than resolving it. In particular, they would respond to mild incitement or disobedience in ways that got everyone involved pumped up with adrenaline rushing, and then things got out of control as people freaked out. We saw a lot of that. A lot lot.

There’s this thing called “suicide by cop” where someone makes threats with a gun to force a cop to shoot them dead. I think there should be a parallel idea of “battery by incitement” where a cop behaves provocatively (but within the limits of their legal authority) in order to set off their interlocutor and provoke them into doing something that seems to warrant a violent response. Listening to them discuss the aftermath in front of the camera (as a kind of soliloquy), we could already see how the misleading, but not exactly false per se, narrative was shaping up.

Immoral cops who know they’re being video-taped from their uniform will just turn to the side and yell “no don’t swing that knife at me” or “no don’t punch me” or “stop swinging at me” or whatever, and then do whatever they want in response. It is absolutely not a deterrent, and it encourages bad behavior, because police have control over where the camera points. And if it’s just audio, they can make false claims, “stop attacking me,” or “don’t reach for my gun, sir,” and who’s more believable if it’s cop-said-perpetrator-said?

Basically, it’s possible for cops to behave in ways that will almost inevitably provoke a violent response from an agitated person. The video camera or audio camera would just become another weapon in their arsenal.

Let’s please file this idea under the “promising-sounding but irretrievably compromised” category. A bit OT, but I’ll note that category already contains tasers, which were supposed to make police more humane by providing an alternative to lethal force. What we see now (with the help of Digby’s eyes) is that it’s becoming more and more standard to use taser-strength force in response to mild or moderate disobedience which clearly does not warrant lethal force.

I don’t know precisely how videotape would be compromised (though I suggested one worrisome possibility, there’s probably several). The advantage of bystander cameras is that police don’t they have the same degree of control over the bystanders as they do over the position of their own uniform and body (they can’t turn the bystander aside the way they could turn themselves sideways). So what we should probably do is defend bystanders’ videotaping rights as vocally and insistently as possible.

Oh, and an arrested or detained person should have the right to request a comfortable tarp or covering for themselves that allows them to see out but masks their identity to bystanders, and until such a device is secure, police should allow the detainee to face away from the camera, by turning away if necessary. Detainees should have the right to sue if they are inappropriately prevented from doing this (appropriately ~ are not resisting arrest or physically struggling with the cops).

17

Mrs Tilton 07.01.11 at 6:16 pm

Henri @10,

People are entitled to privacy

Which people?

The perps? Yes; they are. And if the videotape from the cop-mounted camera is kept confidential except as properly entered into evidence — whether against the perp or against the cop — that privacy is protected.

The cops? Not so much. Once they’re off-duty, yes, they are entitled to the same privacy as the rest of us (and the privacy we should have is, I note in passing, far more than is actually on offer in the brave new world of surveillance we live in). But while on duty? While they are the business-end of the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence? No. A cop who uses force, even lethal force, within the parameters the law sets her acts properly, and she has a legitimate expectation of immunity. A cop who acts under colour of law is a criminal, and we have a legitimate expectation of protection against her. Always-on, undeletable video would protect good cops, and would also protect society against bad cops. Assuming this really is technically feasible, it’s win-win.

18

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.01.11 at 6:31 pm

Well, cop is a human being; he/she can’t be on duty for 8 hours non-stop. They take bathroom breaks, they eat, brush their teeth, they call their spouses. Think of everything you do during a work day, and tell me that it would be reasonable to record every minute of it.

19

bruce 07.01.11 at 6:41 pm

I have an ill-defined “line” on this topic and although I can’t describe it I know that Henry’s proposal crosses it.

I agree that Emily Good had every right to do what she did and the cop was way out of line, but if she had chosen to follow the cop around town all day while videotaping him, I would view this as creepy harassment, even if legal. Henry’s proposal violates the basic human dignity of the cop – just replace “police” with “teacher” or “sales clerk” to see what I mean. I can see that some smart cops may actually WANT to do this, but if you make this a requirement, you just make the job of a cop a little shittier, and you will end up with shittier cops.

Just look at the quality of our politicians to see what you get when people are forced to work under a microscope. (And no, don’t assume I am advocating a return to back room politics – I’m referring to the need for politicians to make public every aspect of their private lives, including proving their birth beyond what is required to get a passport).

20

Don 07.01.11 at 6:42 pm

Salient, good thinking and good points. I’ve seen the police tactic of yelling “Stop resisting!” at a non-resisting suspect, though in that case it was a bystander video (of people being arrested for slow dancing (!) in the Jefferson Memorial, if memory serves). I grant that a cop-mounted camera is under the control of the cop, but it’s not necessarily true that the gaps in the video will always be counted in the cop’s favor. Maybe I’m too optimistic.

There are other scenarios where the recording would be a boon: where there are things in the recording that the cops don’t want on the record, and where events happen in a different order than the cops claim. It doesn’t have to be something as fast-moving as the gunshot heard a moment before the cops yell “Police! Search warrant!” It could be the suspect invoking his right to remain silent, an hour before the confession is extracted from him.

21

LizardBreath 07.01.11 at 6:56 pm

Henry’s proposal crosses it.

I can imagine procedural safeguards for the cops that would make it acceptable to me if they could be made to stick. Something like a contractual agreement that only the portion of the tape immediately surrounding an arrest or other contested event would be used for anything, and that archival footage would be destroyed within ninety days other than portions identified as relevant to a significant event.

At that point, if the footage couldn’t be examined for management purposes, it doesn’t seem that bad.

22

Salient 07.01.11 at 7:10 pm

Always-on, undeletable video would protect good cops

I’m inclined to contest this. A lot of what good cops do is tantamount to not enforcing the letter of the law (in order to enforce cooperation with the spirit of the law), and a lot of other things that good cops do are tantamount to neglecting their law enforcement duties (for example, fifteen minutes of peaceable and friendly interaction with a small group of people who are just hanging out somewhere and maybe technically are loitering but are not causing anyone trouble or distress). Also, a lot of dispute resolution stuff. Good cops on the beat do a surprising amount of mediation between parties that are upset enough to be yelling at each other and causing a public disturbance. Their ability to mediate relies somewhat on trust, and I think that trust would be compromised if people knew they were being taped while interacting with the officer. (To say nothing of compromising people’s ability to give anonymous tips!)

Good cops being videotaped would feel the same way good teachers would feel, or good DMV agents would feel. Sadness at not being trusted to uphold conscionable discretion. Pressured to react in a completely standardized fashion, rather than with intelligent assessment of an incident’s specific circumstances.

If someone videotaped me nonstop as a math instructor (and as a public servant, I guess? I’m at a state university, does that count?) it would make my life far harder. I’d probably stutter a lot more, and lose my train of thought often, and be far less effective, and be tempted to always present the material in a standardized fashion so that my discretion is not called to account (even if I think an alternative explanation will be more compelling and useful I’ll avoid it as a potentially risky thing to try while on camera).

Here’s another angle on this, I’m a grad student. Most of my actually productive research is done by milling about doing something else for a bit, halfabsentmindedly, and then oh! something I was thinking about ‘on the back burner’ clicks and I realize how to try to move forward (e.g. right now my mind’s chewing on possible ways to decompose a particular kind of matrix into a product of sparse matrices, and chewing on how that might generalize to a certain class of compact operators). If on camera during those times, I’d feel pressured to be constantly doing something camera-worthy at every moment. Consider for a moment how that would play out for police.

23

John Quiggin 07.01.11 at 7:18 pm

Maybe this is too obvious to mention, but we had nearly all the same arguments over requirements to record police interviews with suspects.

24

Chris Bertram 07.01.11 at 7:39 pm

Henry, surely one of the lessons of James C. Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ is that just about any human enterprise will go badly wrong when its participants are forced to conform to the official rules governing it, a lesson also to be gleaned from the effectiveness of “working to rule” as a form of industrial action. On the other hand, since it is extremely hard to discipline police even when they are filmed beating people up (2 recent cases in the UK, a police sergeant who threw someone to the floor of a cell causing facial injuries, and a policeman on a demo who claimed that he was in fear from the bottle of juice held by the diminutive woman in front of them and was therefore forced to hit her repeatedly in self-defence) I don’t suppose they have that much to worry about.

25

Frowner 07.01.11 at 8:35 pm

Another objection to continuous filming of an officer’s duty time that I read somewhere (I can’t recall where) was advanced by a police union. The argument is that it’s extremely stressful to be continuously surveilled during your entire shift, and they’re afraid that the recordings would be used for work-monitoring purposes against officers. The Scottish police in Michael Mouse’s link don’t seem to have this objection, and to be honest it seemed like kind of weak tea.

I would rather not have the police filmed continuously because I agree with the contention upthread that it’s basically the first step to having us all wear cameras all the time….or at least those of us engaged in blue- or pink-collar labor. That would certainly prove a huge boon the the camera industry, plus it would create a whole tier of lousy but white collar jobs reviewing our footage. If the public will buy it for the police (and the public loves the police) think how much more enthused they’ll be when it’s proposed to put cameras on those [implicitly] lazy, irresponsible working class people. Or folks on welfare! Hardly anyone would object to mandatory cameras for people getting benefits, especially if they had kids – since everyone believes that poor folks are terrible parents and need to be controlled.

Taking this position kills me, because I have plenty of personal, neighborhood and social group experience with a broad spectrum of police brutality and malfeasance.

26

The Modesto Kid 07.01.11 at 8:47 pm

27

bianca steele 07.01.11 at 8:54 pm

(This is only regarding the last paragraph, really, but:) I’m not sure how a proposal for debate could work out, especially unless there was a distinction made among “this isn’t cutting corners, you simply don’t understand what I was supposed to be doing, because you’re (a) untrained in it, (b) ignorant of the basic rules, (c) incapable of understanding the basic rules, or (d) have an ulterior motive,” and “this isn’t cutting corners, it’s an acceptable tradeoff among rules that at times conflict,” and “okay, this is cutting corners, but the ends justify the means.” If you do have a good reason to suspect the people interpreting the tapes won’t know what they’re doing, it’s not unreasonable to distrust it. All of a sudden the CT comment pool is full of people who want to give more power to the government.

28

jseliger 07.01.11 at 10:11 pm

I like your proposal. Yesterday I actually wrote a post about Erik Larsons book In the Garden of Beasts, which describes just how hard it was for many people in the U.S. to believe how nasty Germany had become. That was my segue into a discussion of what’s happening with widespread video camera usage in the U.S.

29

Emma in Sydney 07.01.11 at 10:43 pm

Salient, one of the lessons of those ‘candid camera’ reality cop and hospital shows is that after an hour of feeling self-conscious in the way you describe, people completely forget that the camera is there. And that’s with a burly cameraman and sound engineer standing in the room. I would think that police would soon act much more in character than you would expect, as suspect interview footage shows when used in court.
This would have good and bad aspects, but self-consciousness is likely to be a temporary phenomenon, slightly refreshed when footage is actually used for something, rather than crippling and constant.
JQ’s point is a good one. Police always object to more surveillance of their actions, while supporting surveillance of other people. Why would that be? I bet they objected when they were made to carry notebooks and surrender them for evidence too.

30

Matt 07.01.11 at 11:20 pm

I’m in favor of the always-on-while-on-duty audiovisual recording being part of the standard police equipment. Cameras are small and don’t take much power to run; there’s no reason they shouldn’t be speckled across the officer to reduce the likelihood of key footage being accidentally or deliberately obscured. Further, the recordings should be duplicated to secure storage over wireless (wifi or cellular) networks whenever possible to reduce chances of accidental or deliberate equipment damage compromising records.

I think that the recordings should be accessible only in response to specific issues, like court cases or a complaint against an officer. The recordings shouldn’t be something you can trawl just looking for patterns or “something interesting.” I think this would be a tremendous advance in accountability over what we have today, even if it can’t catch all kinds of bad behavior, without going so far that it intrudes on private and irrelevant on-the-clock happenings (arguing with a spouse over the phone, using the toilet, grumbling about a supervisor…)

31

Salient 07.01.11 at 11:46 pm

All of a sudden the CT comment pool is full of people who want to give more power to the government.

And specifically, to drastically expand the surveillance capabilities of that government, allegedly in our best interests. (Though to be fair, floating a trial balloon isn’t quite the same as putting the weight of endorsement behind an implementation of the idea.) If we trust police so little that we feel the need to keep tabs on their every action, why do we trust police (and their computer/camera programmers) so much that we are willing to entrust to them what amounts to automatic and continuous surveillance capability?

Install these cameras and within a few months you’ll have people on the TV demanding answers for why we’re not using evidence obtained via these cameras to convict “hardened criminals” or “confessed murderers” or whatever. I give it six months tops before statements made on-camera are accepted as evidence incriminating the speaker, twelve months tops before the cameras become a standard tool of police power and intelligence gathering (used regularly in the normal course of duty to obtain evidence), and eighteen months tops before it’s paired with face recognition software and linked to criminal records databases (and maybe even persons-of-interest databases) in real time.

…remember, tasers were originally supposed to save lives, and lots of folks cheered what they perceived as a switch from deadly to less-deadly force for solely deadly-force-warranted circumstances. Now they’re frequently used as a consequence of disobedience (even lawful disobedience). A lot of theoretically promising curtailments of police power are inverted upon implementation.

32

logern 07.02.11 at 1:21 am

One should depend on the largest body of evidence possible.

Else it becomes possible to convict on planted DNA (for instance). People have begun to see DNA evidence as almost infallible. But it wouldn’t be under all circumstances. In fact it could be rather handy for framing someone.

33

Matt 07.02.11 at 1:49 am

If we trust police so little that we feel the need to keep tabs on their every action, why do we trust police (and their computer/camera programmers) so much that we are willing to entrust to them what amounts to automatic and continuous surveillance capability?

Police can already record activities in public whenever they like. Even if you could take that away, jurors typically place excessive trust in police accounts of untaped events. There is no equitable, surveillance-free past to return to. The best solution I’ve seen proposed is to make the record of events mandatory and continuous, so the police can’t run the camera during the high speed chase and then turn it off when the arrestee’s being beaten. And of course the overseen institution and its members should not be trusted to ensure the integrity of the record: that’s why the records should be copied as near continuously and immediately as possible to a third party offsite repository. Otherwise you’ll frequently see equipment malfunctions and data loss accidents around times when police might have acted badly.

Install these cameras and within a few months you’ll have people on the TV demanding answers for why we’re not using evidence obtained via these cameras to convict “hardened criminals” or “confessed murderers” or whatever. I give it six months tops before statements made on-camera are accepted as evidence incriminating the speaker twelve months tops before the cameras become a standard tool of police power and intelligence gathering (used regularly in the normal course of duty to obtain evidence), and eighteen months tops before it’s paired with face recognition software and linked to criminal records databases (and maybe even persons-of-interest databases) in real time.

You know that police can already videotape you in public without a warrant, right? You know that mass automatic license plate recognition is already used without a warrant, right, and similar derivatives (face recognition etc.) can’t be far behind? The police can already do the bad things with cameras that you fear, plus turn off the cameras or “lose” the video when it would help the defense’s case or expose police wrongdoing. There seems to be very little public support for outlawing police use of recording devices, but a good chance that police oversight and defense attorneys can be strengthened if recording is non-discretionary.

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Matt 07.02.11 at 2:18 am

I should add to the last: defense attorneys are strengthened by always-on recordings presuming that their clients are telling the truth. The prosecution has an even easier case if you can actually see the defendant kicking the victim on camera or whatever. And that’s fine too. I don’t want innocent people to be bothered or abused by police. I don’t even want actual criminals to be abused by police. But neither do I want laws to go generally unenforced*. If this technology helps catch and convict the perpetrators of crimes at the same time it curbs abusive police behavior, so much the better.

*OK, I would really prefer that the police fail to stop drug production, possession, and sales. That’s only a stopgap for wishing that the laws would actually change. I’m not going to abandon the whole idea of law enforcement just because I hate the drug war.

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Salient 07.02.11 at 3:29 am

The police can already do the bad things with cameras that you fear

In theory, yes, but in practice, no not really, because they’re not equipped with micro-videocameras by default and usually don’t think to purchase many for their department, much less carry them around all day.

There seems to be very little public support for outlawing police use of recording devices,

I suspect the public would consider it deeply weird if they learned a police officer was carrying a videocamera around and recording people all day long. I mean, there was very little public support for outlawing police use of electrocution in the ’90s (especially if you sugarcoated it as potentially a less deadly alternative to shooting people), and there’s probably still not even plurality support, but tasers are considered normal now and I don’t want police-operated/police-mounted videocameras to also become similarly normal.

but a good chance that police oversight and defense attorneys can be strengthened if recording is non-discretionary.

Ok, admittedly, I consider the technically precise description of non-discretionary recording system that you propose to be flatly impossible in practice. It would be fair to say that I’m just being obstinate — I’m admitting to that, not accusing you of any impropriety. That having been said, I feel like it’s kinda like asking me to sign on to approving of tasers, with a careful specification that each use of the taser would have to be defended in a juried criminal court as a battery charge against the officer on the tasee’s behalf. That would be awesome, but it’d never shake out that way.

In general I’m probably instinctively opposed to any policy for which one has to specify a variety of implausible-seeming technical requirements as necessary in order to render the policy at all palatable (e.g. cameras installed everywhere on the uniform? we both know that won’t ever happen. C’mon, at best it’ll be a single helmet cam or something, at worst a completely discretionary photo-taking camera with optional audio.)

Don’t get me wrong, I liked your creativity in coming up with technical ways to pre-empt a lot of the protests/complaints/concerns voiced here (modulo the mild agitation noted above). It’s just, the fact that it’s within the realm of technical possibility to address these complaints doesn’t convince me to endorse or voice approval. Especially given the novel, coincidental, and convenient fact that nowadays a lot of bystanders will have cameras (as will potential detainees or subjects of inquiry) so I have the attractive alternative of arguing for their right to videotape police activity. If it wasn’t for the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, I’d feel pressed to more readily assent rather than be pesty about the likelihood of technically appropriate and theoretically feasible implementation (and, ok, if it wasn’t for the horrifying ongoing example of taser-tech implementation, I’d probably find ‘it could be made to work’ type conjecturing easier to engage in).

36

bad Jim 07.02.11 at 4:06 am

At a minimum, we ought to make it clear that the public has a right to photograph the police, and we ought to enforce that right with sanctions – criminal, if necessary – against police and prosecutors who interfere with public recordings.

Furthermore, all interrogations must be securely recorded. No confession should be admissible in court without an accompanying recording which also shows that the subject was given proper warning against self-incrimination.

In the absence of a recording the testimony of the police should perhaps not be automatically considered trustworthy.

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Alex 07.02.11 at 5:21 am

Maybe this is too obvious to mention, but we had nearly all the same arguments over requirements to record police interviews with suspects.

When suspects are interviewed, they have a right to a lawyer. Presumably then, if police officers are mandated to record all the time while on duty, then every one of us should have a right to a lawyer before the police can even talk to us.

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weaver 07.02.11 at 8:58 am

With the mentality that currently infects our political and media systems in relation to law and order issues I think the most likely impact such constant monitoring would have would be to increase arrests and other police harassment. The police discretion most detrimentally affected would be the discretion not to charge. Remember that for every civil libertarian there’s at least one busybody more concerned to know why the coppers aren’t fining that busker, imprisoning that jaywalker, beating those bloody hippies, etc.

Which isn’t to say that it would be a bad idea; just that care would need to be taken to make the result a positive one by ensuring certain attitude changes, social reforms and so on at the same time (or perhaps instead of – it would be nice simply if coppers could be freed of the pathological sense of entitlement that comes with myths like “the thin blue line”). IE: remembering at all times that there are no technological solutions to problems which are (socio)political in origin.

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logern 07.02.11 at 10:25 am

Install these cameras and within a few months you’ll have people on the TV demanding answers for why we’re not using evidence obtained via these cameras to convict “hardened criminals” or “confessed murderers” or whatever. I give it six months tops before statements made on-camera are accepted as evidence incriminating the speaker, twelve months tops before the cameras become a standard tool of police power and intelligence gathering (used regularly in the normal course of duty to obtain evidence), and eighteen months tops before it’s paired with face recognition software and linked to criminal records databases (and maybe even persons-of-interest databases) in real time.

Well, they are dangerous. They’ve certainly helped upset the status quo in the Middle East.

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Warren Terra 07.02.11 at 10:38 am

Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to seal the footage so it couldn’t be accessed without a demonstrated need (a warrant, for example) and to require that rather than be copied or otherwise distributed the footage must be viewed in a designated facility, with cameras not allowed within that facility. Safeguards of this sort would protect against prurient and harassing examination and misuse of recordings.

RE the proper science fiction antecedent for police officers whose every actions is recorded, there are of course examples other than and prior to Stross’s books. Greg Bear’s City Of Angels (1990), for example. Benford and Brin imagined a society obsessed with transparency in Earth, and Brin has also written a nonfiction book about transparency.

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Alex 07.02.11 at 11:45 am

It’s not obvious, as John Quiggin rightly says, that any of the standard criticisms of surveillance apply to recording police interviews. Would anyone in the UK really go back on PACE now? It’s also surprising to say the least that the US doesn’t require this, another way in which the New Zero Kanada EP was so very right.

The effects on the police’s ability to ignore crime would be interesting and would cut both ways. It would probably have a generally work-monitoring effect in making them ignore less and arrest more, which is probably a bad thing…but a major form of police abuse, especially in its structural role as a social force, is precisely the ability to ignore crimes when they are committed against the wrong kind of citizen. The fact that policing is available on demand to some people and not to others is an important class distinction.

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Phil 07.02.11 at 2:09 pm

I agree with both bruce @ 19 and salient @ 16. Firstly, I don’t believe this would be an effective constraint, and do believe it would be turned against the public almost immediately. Secondly, to the extent that it had any effect on police working practices, I don’t think it’d be a good one. While Alex is right about the police overlooking entire categories of crime/offender/victim, I don’t believe adding constant surveillance It would necessarily have any effect on this; apart from anything else, the “wrong kind of citizen” would have no way of accessing the evidence that those crimes had been overlooked. The discretion it would destroy is the discretion whether or not to arrest particular crimes in the ‘currently enforced’ category. Thirdly, there’s an issue of principle: constant surveillance is creepy and weird, even (especially?) if it becomes normalised, and we shouldn’t wish it on anyone.

People filming the police is a form of resistance to excessive police power, and one which is as far as I can see wholly legitimate (after all, if the police have nothing to hide…) We should be defending celebrating and encouraging it – not trying to find technical fixes to make it unnecessary, by somehow designing what it gives us into the system. (“What it gives us” is resistance to the system.)

(Also, I don’t get Alex’s GYBE! reference.)

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Salient 07.02.11 at 2:30 pm

They’ve certainly helped upset the status quo in the Middle East.

What? Law enforcement officers are equipped with nonstop-recording videocameras in the Middle East? …is that true? or what did you mean?

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Andrew F. 07.02.11 at 2:39 pm

I view the sustainability of procedural/legal safeguards on the use of these recording devices with great suspicion. Once the devices are in place, those safeguards will be subject to continuous erosion. With that in mind:

(1) Study the impact of the devices on effectiveness before rolling them out generally. Do they contribute significantly to fatigue, to mistakes, or to overly cautious policing? What would the costs be if officers perceived all of the recordings as accessible?

(2) Be realistic about “private” these recordings will be. If I sue for excessive force, and there are 90 days of recordings archived, how much of that can I get in discovery? If a city council investigation wants to review everything on file, how much can they get? What will be the outcome if, following a complaint of excessive force, a local politician wants to make waves by demanding that these recordings become reviewable, in full, by a civilian board? What will be the effect of the temptation to use these recordings for the purpose of performance evaluation?

If the system is implemented, allowing police officers to turn the recording device on and off would probably mitigate the costs while having little impact on benefits. Specify standards that require them to activate it during certain situations – failing to follow these standards would be a red flag – but leave actual control of the device in their hands.

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Robin Datta 07.02.11 at 2:52 pm

The puissance of the state – every state – is at its kernel the retention (for itself, and only for itself) of the option to initiate the use of force against peaceful non-compliers, effected through its agents. Those wearing the mantle of this authority and those who condone its wearing are equally culpable in perpetuating this perversity, notwithstanding the proffered moral and ethical justifications.

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ajay 07.02.11 at 3:19 pm

Their ability to mediate relies somewhat on trust, and I think that trust would be compromised if people knew they were being taped while interacting with the officer. (To say nothing of compromising people’s ability to give anonymous tips!)

This would seem to be the biggest single problem here. So much of police work is not arresting people but talking to people; and it’s not beyond possibility that people would be much less ready to talk to a police officer if they knew they were on camera, and that the recordings of what they said would be accessible to other police officers, civilian support staff, lawyers, review boards, plus anyone with the money or influence to buy any member of any of the above. The anonymous tip is still, as it always was, a big part of police work.

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mw 07.02.11 at 5:38 pm

One of the things that’s not clear to me reading the comments here is to what extent people are aware that egregious, illegal (but virtually never prosecuted) abuses by cops are NOT isolated incidents. Readers of libertarian oriented sites (like reason.com) see accounts of such incidents almost daily, whereas they seem to make only rare appearances on left-leaning sites (though Radley Balko is now writing for Huffington Post, so that may open some eyes). In case your blood pressure is too low, here’s another recent item:

http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/06/29/37770.htm

Ubiquitous cell-phone cameras have revealed that police abuses are routine–we need to worry a *lot* more about curtailing them than is preserving police privacy and ‘discretion’.

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logern 07.02.11 at 6:16 pm

What? Law enforcement officers are equipped with nonstop-recording videocameras in the Middle East? …is that true? or what did you mean?

Only that cameras are effective in the hands of activists. So that makes them “dangerous”.

Cameras are ubiquitous in one of the prominent environments here where I live (Las Vegas). If they are on or even near the top ten/twenty complaints I hear about casinos from patrons or workers, I’m not aware of it.

There supposedly was an era where some people were sometimes roughed up in rooms off casino floors. But these were areas where no recordings were being made.

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Bruce Baugh 07.02.11 at 8:23 pm

Warren Terra: Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to seal the footage so it couldn’t be accessed without a demonstrated need (a warrant, for example) and to require that rather than be copied or otherwise distributed the footage must be viewed in a designated facility, with cameras not allowed within that facility. It’s not that it’d be difficult to do this, it’s just that it wouldn’t happen. Check out recent years’ bipartisan history of handling wiretap info, for instance, and of handling accountability for it.

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Dr. Hilarius 07.02.11 at 8:40 pm

When I was a new criminal defense attorney the Seattle police quit using a video camera in their DUI processing room. I asked a well-respected judge why? “It cut down on too much police perjury.”

Abusive police force is not rare. What is new is technology giving the lie to that assumption of rarity. Many Washington State Patrol cars have video cams. What is amazing is getting a written police report that bears little resemblance to the video. And this is with troopers who know the camera is there and running! Even when there are damning video tapes it is difficult to obtain convictions for excessive force and civil rights violations. Educated, affluent (and usually white) citizens simply refuse to believe that police don’t usually act in a professional manner or have justification for clearly unjustified actions. Police themselves rarely will inform on fellow officers. Those that do run the risk of being shunned as a rat.

The boogie man of surveilling all public sector workers is just that. What agency has the time and resources to watch thousands of hours of garbage collectors, mail couriers, etc. What distinguishes police from other public sector workers is that they can use deadly force, often with a looser standard of reasonableness than for civilians. Last year a Seattle cop shot and killed an elderly Native American woodcarver when he failed to immediately drop a pocket knife. It was caught on video. An inquest jury found the shooting unjustified but no charges were filed as state law required that police killings needed to be with actual malice to be criminal and not just reckless or negligent.

Chris Bertram at 24 does identify a potential problem in police “working to rule” in response. I expect that would be a short-term problem as it becomes the norm.

Good cops don’t fear a video record. It protects them from false accusations. Video can be the most damning evidence of criminal activity. Several times I’ve had clients who maintained they weren’t impaired by alcohol/drugs when driving and were demanding a trial to clear their name. That is, until they saw the video tape of them falling down and spouting gibberish at the trooper. No trial, a quick guilty plea. Cuts down on the bullshit all around.

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Phil 07.02.11 at 9:08 pm

we need to worry a lot more about curtailing them than is preserving police privacy and ‘discretion’.

I’m sure the first concern is greater than the second, but I’m not so convinced that they can be traded off against each other. In other words, I suspect that it’s quite possible to police discretion, in the name of curtailing abuses, without actually having any impact on the level of abuse.

My basic position is that the police qua police have quite an ambiguous, semi-detached relationship with the rule of law; as such, any reform to the way they operate should be scrutinised very, very carefully to make sure it doesn’t put more means to evade the law in the hands of people who already have both the motive and the opportunity. Even interview-room recording, which certainly prevented some gross abuses of power when it was introduced, has become part of the game – “let’s just have a chat beforehand to get things straight…” And that’s without taking into consideration the fact that (in England and Wales at least) mandatory recording, and the other reforms brought in by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, were paid for with a massive expansion of statutory police powers.

This is why large-scale filming of the police is such a breath of fresh air – and why I’m so baffled by the assumption in the OP that it’s a sign of an imperfection in the system, which should be dealt with by reforming the system yet again (and hey! shiny new technology!)

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Phil 07.02.11 at 9:11 pm

First paragraph: should be “to cut police discretion”.

Dr. H:
What is amazing is getting a written police report that bears little resemblance to the video. And this is with troopers who know the camera is there and running!

Quite.

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musical mountaineer 07.02.11 at 10:12 pm

There’s actually nothing wrong with the status quo, as far as law and policy is concerned. It is legal to videotape police at work where neither they nor anyone else has a reasonable expectation of privacy. That is as it should be. The only problem is that some cops don’t understand or don’t want to abide by the law; they seem to have the expectation that they can act wrongfully or incompetently, bury the evidence, and get away with it. Which, of course, is exactly what some cops have always done.

But Henry’s proposal, while it is interesting and defensible, is more punitive than practical in spirit. Cops are wrongfully arresting people or taking away their cameras? The whole thing stinks of corruption? Well, take that! But Salient and others have made some strong points as to why constant surveillance would not be a good thing.

I think we can all agree that a cultural adjustment of the relationship between cops and other citizens is due. It’s underway. Cops will learn that they can’t stop passersby from recording them. They’ll adjust. There will be some cost, some loss of discretion, but it will be acceptable; more acceptable than smacking around law-abiding citizens in public, anyway. Proposals like Henry’s are valuable in this process, because even if nobody really wants to implement them, they give notice to any reactionaries: do you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?

Speaking of reactionaries, Coates’s line is despicable and deeply stupid. Viral video would have no potential whatsoever to erode the brand and legitimacy of law enforcement, if not for the bad behavior of cops. What, do cops need to behave badly in public, or the terrorists will have won? Our freedom depends on the impunity with which armed enforcers can fuck up and break the law? Well, thanks for the insights, now I never have to read anything by you again.

Good cops benefit from more evidence, pretty much by definition. Conversely, more evidence which the police do not control will create a strong incentive for cops to be good. And I doubt that viral video of cops is as bad for the cop “brand” as Coates suggests. Speaking for myself, I developed more respect for the police (and got much, much better at dealing with them in person) from watching COPS. Of course, on that show, they mostly show good cops doing good work. But sometimes they show a cop doing something so boneheaded it just makes you laugh. So far, it hasn’t been quite enough to delegitimize the entire concept of government and plunge us all into anarchy.

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Steven 07.02.11 at 10:53 pm

Most cops I’ve spoken with this about don’t object to being videotaped. They also feel that Good shouldn’t have been arrested.

As far as the rarity of police abuse goes, it seems to be extraordinarily rare. If US police officers have one and only one enforcement-related interaction with each person in the US a year, then that is 325,000,000 interactions. If there are 3,250,000 instances of serious police abuse a year, then this means that 99% of all police interactions occur without a serious abuse of power. I’d venture to say that there are only really about 1,000,000 instances of serious abuse. This means that 99.66% of all police interactions occur without an abuse of power. If only one percent of these abuses were caught on tape and made public, there’d be 10,000 instances of abuse available to the public each year, or 27 new ones every day.

Some would say that I am underestimating the incidence of serious abuse, but even I admit I am underestimating the number of interactions. I think it’s more like 600,000,000 interactions a year. So even if we double the incidents of abuse, and say that TWO MILLION times a year there is an interaction between a citizen and a police officer that’s a serious abuse of power, we’re still dealing with a situation where 299 out of every 300 people interact with the police in a fair and reasonable way. That’s a good starting point for reform.

Another matter, not discussed here yet but worthy of tangential consideration, is the use of the camera as a passive-aggressive weapon to get up cops’ ire. Nobody likes having anything waved in their face while they’re trying to concentrate on something important and possibly dangerous. To confrontationally shove a camera in a cop’s face while saying “it’s my right to do this” is to use the color of (Constituitional) law to annoy and provoke him. This is wrong, and stupid.

In general, it seems as if it’s best to stand as far away as possible while still being able to capture the footage with clarity. Ms. Good was such a distance away, so this doesn’t apply in her case, but it’s a good (eh) point. We seem to be very sympathetic to Lady Gaga when fotogs shove cameras in her face (“Poor Lady Gaga! That must be maddening! How can she relax and wear her meat like that?”), and she’s not even doing anything important. Cops trying to do their job are at least as maddened as Lady Gaga, and their job is more dangerous and more important (okay, it’s dangerous to be Lady Gaga, but if you don’t get the differenece here, I can’t help you).

There is a deep espistemological concern at work on the part of the police. The worry isn’t that people “can’t handle the truth,” but rather that they wouldn’t know what the “truth” was even if they saw it right there on video. I could just put forth a few “social construction of knowledge” arguments here and they would do a lot of work in showing that the viewers’ rendition of events is merely some positionally-informed understanding of what took place, no “better “or “worse,” “true” or “false,” than those of the cops.

But I won’t, since those theories are silly. It’s just that videos are often incomplete in important ways that can’t be compensated for. Missing from the video are a pulse rate, training, judgments based on exigencies and experience, previous knowledge of individuals, etc. What does it really mean to see a video and say “I wouldn’t have done it that way?” It doesn’t mean much. This doesn’t meant that there shouldn’t be more videos, but that if there are we should be prepared for people to do a lot of complaining and second-guessing, but we should probably be hesistant to take most of these complaints seriously. Or, we should start taking them seriously when professional footballers in turn say “Yes, Mr. Couch-Borne Football Fan, you saw me on video replay, and I agree, there was no reason for me not to have scored that goal. I should have done it differently, and better. I have clearly fallen short and you have caught me in this shortcoming thanks to video.”

And I will just dismiss out of hand the idea tha cops shouldn’t have discretion in cases where the law allows. Most people prefer a warning over a ticket or an arrest any day, and the only complaint I can see is that the warnings that come from discretion are skewed or underdistributed, not that the arrests are.

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Emma in Sydney 07.02.11 at 11:06 pm

Mountainer, you obviously haven’t read Coates, because you could not have got his position more wrong. He is certainly no apologist for the police, on the contrary. You should check him out — he and his commenters have some of the most open, civil and productive conversations on the internet, and he both learns from, and admits, his mistakes.

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Matt 07.03.11 at 12:05 am

I think that the technical issues in producing a comprehensive, durable, tamper-resistant audiovisual record of a police officer’s on-duty actions are modest. Socially, I’m not sure Americans will approve any time soon, not because of their fears of further eroding privacy but because a significant minority think that the police should be allowed to do almost anything against “bad guys.” Next-best, I guess, is hoping that an interested citizen is nearby with his cell phone camera out whenever someone has an encounter with police. And if police think that the Youtube approach is unfair because it shows (e.g.) them hitting people but not the initial attack that provoked it, then we can revisit the idea of a non-discretionary recording system with perhaps broader support.

Personally, I have never had a bad encounter with police. They’ve always been mutually respectful and low-key. But I can’t say that bad apples are the extreme minority, because silence in support of bad behavior is itself a kind of bad behavior, and this appears common. If only one person on the force hits non-resisting suspects but the other 49 back up his stories or just act like they saw nothing, I’d say there are 50 bad guys on the force.

This discussion reminds me that the panopticon approach is needed in prisons more than in police encounters on the street. There are no bystanders with cell phones to record problems there. If there were no place safe from recording in prisons, drug and weapon smuggling, threats and violence toward prisoners would be much harder to get away with. The significant faction of bad-apple-enablers in the population makes this harder than any technical or budgetary issues: a lot of people don’t want a justice system, they want a torture-and-humiliation system. Don’t steal cars if you don’t want to be sentenced to rape by “Bubba,” ha-ha-ha.

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Andrew F 07.03.11 at 12:45 am

Surveillance will always hold some positive value for enforcing standards of conduct and for verification of accounts after the fact.

And certainly if legal safeguards were accepted as sufficient, and we all had complete confidence in them, there would be no problem with surveillance technology everywhere.

Hotel maids who may or may not be the victims of criminal behavior by guests? Surveillance in hotel rooms would solve that – we’d simply include safeguards so that the surveillance is never viewed unless the guest is arrested or credibly accused.*

Having trouble detecting domestic abuse in time to stop serious injury? Surveillance in homes would solve that – with adequate safeguards of course.

Parents suspected to be abusing their children? Let’s give overstretched social workers some help with wall-to-wall surveillance in homes – only to be activated when justified, of course.

I’m not saying these positive values are trivial. I’m just saying they exist for every deployment of surveillance technology I can imagine, and it’s a rare person who presumes legal safeguards to be always adequate when he himself is a possible subject.

*Recent revelations about DSK’s accuser have rendered quite a few accusations and remarks levied here on Crooked Timber, in retrospect, quite questionable. And one of the keys to unlocking those revelations was surveillance of prisoner phone-calls.

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dr ngo 07.03.11 at 4:04 am

Those wearing the mantle of this authority and those who condone its wearing are equally culpable in perpetuating this perversity, notwithstanding the proffered moral and ethical justifications.

Are those who utter piffle and those who fail to challenge it equally culpable of piffling? Just curious.

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Tony Lynch 07.03.11 at 5:59 am

The thing is: Who watches the it?

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Tony Lynch 07.03.11 at 6:01 am

(Take the “the” out.)

61

Plucky Underdog 07.03.11 at 9:22 am

59-60: the first version was WAY better

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Tony Lynch 07.04.11 at 7:24 am

61: You are right. Cancel #60.

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Nancy Lebovitz 07.04.11 at 12:09 pm

Steven, you’re leaving out that 1%/year adds up over a lifetime and that police abuse isn’t evenly distributed across the population.

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Warren Terra 07.04.11 at 10:43 pm

Nancy, the failure of Steven to comprehend the implications of the numbers he invented out of whole cloth may not be the biggest problem with Steven’s comment.

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Peter T 07.05.11 at 1:06 am

Before you get too enthusiastic about this idea, think about how police management would use this. Just chatting? That does not show up on performance management statistics. Just letting the local bad guys know we are watching them? No space for that on the forms. News and management stats tend to be about the dramatic moments, but good policing (like good teaching) is about avoiding dramas.

Also, criminality has distinct types. About 90% of crime is committed by a small number of people – a lot of it by young men who will grow out of it if encouraged to do so. Those who do not will go on to adopt a criminal lifestyle (they are criminals in the way other people are plumbers). A very large part of the criminal justice system is devoted to dealing with these people, who can and do game the system. Video would probably just add another element of gaming (see- the video shows that the police did not meet the requirements of section 47, para 5 of the Evidence Act, so they can’t get me this time). Policing should be about keeping the committed criminals from doing too much harm with a minimum of annoyance to everyone else. I can’t see cameras contributing to the best balance on this.

JQ’s remark about video of interviews is beside the point – by the time you have got to an interview the system has decided to devote considerable time to you anyway, and is dealing with you formally.

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basil 07.05.11 at 2:15 pm

They don’t like the idea in Syria.

Syrian shot as he films crackdown on protesters

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Doctor Slack 07.06.11 at 8:15 am

Steven: “Most cops I’ve spoken with this about don’t object to being videotaped.”

Most cops might say they don’t when asked. And yet ever never, ever, ever have I seen a cop act anything but squirrelly when they knew they were being videotaped, or even just watched. Becuase the theory and fact are different things, and when they’re out their doing the job, they want reassurance that either (to frame it positively) the public supports them, or (to frame it more neutrally) that their authority isn’t being challenged, or in the case of the few bad apples (estimates of numbers may vary) that actions that they know perfectly well are indefensible and illegal, but that they view as perks of their status or somehow “necessary” in the Alonso Harris lexicon of cop work, won’t be caught on videotape. Videotaping is an all of these cases quite routinely seen and reacted to with hostility, though the hostility rarely escalates to illegal arrests.

From the first two sorts of cops the reaction is sort-of comprehensible, but counterproductive. From the last group the reaction is entirely comprehensible, and is unfortunately the precise reason why the public needs to aggressivley assert the right to videotape the cops.

I was intrigued by this from Coates: “It’s already happened in many black communities, where the police are simply viewed as another power to be contended with.”

Surely this happened long, long before viral video came on the scene.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 07.06.11 at 11:54 am

Quiggen@23 pointed out that we had many of the same arguments over taping police interviews with suspects. Cops and prosecutors were uneasy, because police interrogations–even the good by-the-book interrogations–rely on an ugly mixture of selective lying and psychological pressure on the defendant. They were afraid that juries would recoil in disgust once the defense counsel prepared the interrogation mashup.

Guess what? It didn’t happen. Good taped interrogations resulted in convictions.

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Steven 07.07.11 at 5:14 pm

Why make estimates, however crude, when we can just rely on anectodes?

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