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The Video Revolution in Policing

Still from Rodney King beating video
Still from Rodney King beating video
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 4, 2014

We may have reached the point where video technology is producing a full-fledged revolution in policing. That revolution has been crystalized, or at least revealed by, the events in Ferguson.

The first element of that revolution is a growing expectation among Americans that any dramatic event that takes place in public will be recorded on video. As I argued last January:

We are currently transitioning toward a new set of societal expectations surrounding video surveillance. Under the old expectation, the default expectation was that any given event would not be photographed. In this mindset we hear people exclaim in wonderment when an incident “happens to” get caught on camera. That is rapidly being replaced by a new mindset in which the default expectation is that something taking place in public will be recorded.

Sure enough, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, we saw much discussion of video, or the lack of it. The result of this trend is that, like it or not, the actions of police officers will increasingly be photographed. Officers or departments can fight mandates to wear body cameras, they can try turning them off when they don’t want their actions recorded, they can refuse to release video to the public, they may allow mysterious technical “accidents” to swallow up video that has been captured, they can try to intimidate citizens into not photographing them, they can even try to steal cameras or memory chips (or seize them as “evidence”) in an effort to prevent video from coming to light. But as the police (along with the rest of us) become increasingly enveloped by video cameras, none of these measures will ultimately withstand the pressure of public expectation. “Something bad has happened? Well let’s see the video!”

If there is no video, that in itself will increasingly come to be viewed as suspicious, and the police will find their credibility weakened.

That dimension of the video revolution in policing will in turn have an even more significant effect. To illustrate how, consider the following passage from Graham Greene’s darkly comic 1958 spy novel, Our Man in Havana:

‘How are you certain that Cifuentes is not my agent?’
‘By the way you play checkers, Mr. Wormold, and because I interrogated Cifuentes.’
‘Did you torture him?’
Captain Segura laughed. ‘No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.’
‘I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.’
‘Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement. . . . Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.’
‘Who does?’
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with emigres from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants….
‘One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or the prisons of Lisbon or Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.’
‘We’re not shocked by that any longer.’
‘It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.’

Although the cynicism of Greene’s police captain is exaggerated, there is certainly a core truth here: that as “an instinctive matter” the police know whom they can torture—let us broaden the concept and say “mistreat”—and whom they cannot.

In America, African-Americans, especially but not exclusively those in poor inner-cities, are part of the mistreatable class. Take for example a video like this one, in which a St. Paul man is Tasered (Tasers often being used for punitive torture in response to the act of “dissing a cop”) and arrested for no legitimate reason after he had questioned why he was being ordered to leave an apparently public seating area while waiting to pick up his children from school. It is very hard to imagine that this would have happened to an otherwise identical man who was white.

What about the point Greene’s character makes about “mutual agreement”? The St. Paul man, and most other victims, certainly don’t seem to consent to their mistreatment. Perhaps Greene refers to the fact that oppressed people in some times and places, when their oppression is bad enough, quite rationally recognize that any protest would be futile—a helplessness that contributes to a broader social reality that the authorities are “allowed” to mistreat certain people.

Invisibile or not believed

If police have generally been able to get away with abusing people, then much of the problem lies in the fact that judges, juries, prosecutors, and the public have too often deemed police officers more credible than abuse victims—especially black and poor victims. Part of the power that police have wielded comes from knowing that, should their victims complain, they will experience the nightmare of not being believed.

I give the American public enough credit to believe that if police have had wide latitude to abuse black people (and others in Greene’s “torturable classes”), it is only because such abuse is either invisible or not believed. There may be a segment of the population that, out of fear and prejudice, would like to give the police license to abuse African-Americans, but I think the public at large wouldn’t tolerate it—if nothing else, because it does not comport with the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

So that is the other part of the video revolution in policing: increasingly, abuse of this kind will no longer be hidden, and the victims will be believed. Without his cellphone camera, the St. Paul man may well have received jail time, or at best have just been sent along to stew in his own anger. Instead, he’s at least had the satisfaction of seeing his situation become a controversy, sparking press coverage and forcing a response from the police. And his formal complaint may or may not be satisfactorily addressed, but it will certainly not be buried.

If the police find it increasingly hard to abuse citizens, that will be true not only because there will often be video (or hard questions about its absence), but also because, as Conor Friedersdorf summed up nicely in the headline of a recent piece, “Video Killed Trust in Police Officers.” The antecedent of course was the Rodney King beating, but in the past several years the combination of a video camera in every pocket and YouTube has generated an increasingly regular supply of videos showing civilians being abused by officers. This has opened a broader spectrum of people’s eyes to these realities, and that spectrum will only grow wider over time.

That Ferguson may represent a watershed moment in this dynamic is somewhat ironic since the shooting of Michael Brown was not caught on video. But the very lack of a video record of Brown’s shooting has only confirmed the dynamic I discussed above, sparking widespread calls for mandatory police body cameras (and prompting the Ferguson police to adopt the technology several weeks after the shooting). And the video-driven “death of trust” in police probably played a role in amplifying the situation in Ferguson—drawing the interest of reporters and the national public, influencing the balance of opinion about how likely it was that the police officer was in the wrong, and generally changing how the situation was perceived.

The Ferguson uprising may be forgotten in a year, but there’s also a chance that it will come to be seen as a significant inflection point—the moment when awareness crystalized among both African Americans and police officers that there is no longer a “torturable class” in the United States.

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