by Kevin Levy, Executive Editor
Problem: Instances of police brutality have cropped up in all corners of the country leading to public distrust in our nation's law enforcement.
Solution: Require police officers to turn off their body cameras before working a massive event until something "goes down."
You read that right.
Recently, a ruckus was made in police media circles that the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department would require their officers to deactivate their body cameras at the Inauguration until some sort of "police action" arose, allegedly at the demand of the American Civil Liberties Union (but in reality in accordance with DC Municipal law). This behemoth band of lawyers has been at the forefront of many of the nation's civil rights issues over the past hundred years, especially on Freedom of Speech issues.
The legal powerhouse believes that the citizenry must be able to express its many diverse views in order to promote democratic values. They've also ardently disagreed with the government's ability to maintain surveillance programs Muslim Americans and on the entire American citizenship. It is this fear of government 'spying' and record collecting that led opponents of government surveillance to require law enforcement officers deactivate their body cameras until they were necessary to record interactions with civilians. The ACLU is now playing defense with their support of that law.
But there seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance between the idea that police interactions should be filmed in order to protect protesters, and the idea that the police should not record their interactions with civilians until something "goes down."
If what you're worried about is police brutality, then why would you entrust the police to turn on their cameras before they start attacking protesters? If the police are so nefarious, in fact, wouldn’t they purposefully deactivate their cameras just before committing civil rights violations? Shouldn’t you require law enforcement officers to constantly record every waking hour of the day to prevent them from selectively deciding when to be held accountable and be transparent?
This, of course, assumes that body cameras exist solely to protect civilians from interactions with the police, when it could also work in the reverse. Body cameras could work to protect law enforcement officers from one sided media coverage that attempts to paint them as aggressors. Take, for example, this 2015 incident in Kansas caught on a bystander’s camera and later posted to YouTube titled Lenexa Police Department Brutality. The thirty-six second clip showed police officers wrestling on the ground with an unarmed suspect, ending with the videographer shouting to the suspect “They're gonna fucking kill you bro, quit moving.”
This incident, like many involving allegations of police brutality, went viral on social media sites. Luckily for the police officers involved, their body cameras (and patrol car dashboard camera) were operative and caught the videographer with his pants down by showing the suspect throwing a punch at the officers before being taken down.
At massive occasions like the Women’s March and Inauguration events, one should expect all parties involved to be on their best behavior. That includes police, attendees, and protesters.
In December of last year, the ACLU released a policy paper that encouraged courts and juries to disregard police officers’ testimonies if they “unjustifiably [fail] to record an interaction with a civilian.” The mandate to require police officers to record their interactions with civilians is directly challenged by their support of a policy that prevents police officers to record their interactions with civilians unless something “goes down.”
Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama Administration began working with law enforcement agencies across the country to better equip them with body cameras. Fox News reported in 2014 that President Obama was “pushing a three-year, $263 million program to expand training and resources for local police departments -- the biggest component would be a $75 million fund during that period to help purchase 50,000 body cameras.” Body cameras have the ability to improve police interactions with civilians, and vice versa, according to at least one California police chief.
When shots are fired, first responders rush towards the commotion. Police are trained to neutralize a threat and to protect civilians simultaneously. It seems almost axiomatic that police shouldn’t be concerned with fiddling with the body camera device on their chests first and foremost. Why, then, would the ACLU adopt a policy that puts civilian safety at risk?
Their primary reason for supporting the “Do Not Record” policy is based on fear of a J. Edgar Hoover-esque policing program of compiling information on civilians. “There is a long history of law enforcement compiling dossiers on peaceful activists exercising their First Amendment rights in public marches and protests, and using cameras to send an intimidating message to such protesters,” writes ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley. He also points to instances of when the police filmed their interactions with civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of abusive police power.
The ACLU staff is mortified with the possibility that the Metropolitan Police Department would film protesters for the sake of compiling secretive files on protesters to potentially blackball them farther down the line all in an attempt to enforce a larger police state. Now, reality TV star Donald Trump was just inaugurated as President of the United States, so clearly stranger things have happened in 2017. But this seems absurd.
In order to protect civilians from police brutality, the ACLU has long encouraged ordinary people to become citizen-journalists and to film their interactions with the police. They’ve even developed an iPhone app called Mobile Justice that would send a video directly to the ACLU. Americans should feel safe in their communities, and having the ability to film law enforcement officers can certainly aid in that effort. Without violating legal standards and impairing the efforts of the police to do their job safely, people should be able to record their own interactions with the police.
But police should be able to film their interactions with the general public as well. The notion that police will worry primarily with turning on their cameras before intervening in a violent altercation between protesters is unlikely at best and simply silly at worst. Their inability to do that fails to protect law enforcement officers from false allegations of brutality, and neither does it protect civilians in future suits of actual brutality. In a life-or-death situation, cameras should already be recording by the time something “goes down” in order to get a sense of the entire situation rather than another thirty-second clip that gets just a blip of the event.
Body cameras only work when they’re operational. The ACLU’s discombobulated ideology when it comes to police body cameras is bewildering and, frankly, quite disturbing. Requiring police to keep cameras off until there's a "police action" protects neither protesters, the police, nor the greater American public.