Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Put Cameras on Police

“The first rule of police work,” Sean Connery intoned to Kevin Costner in his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables, is this: “When your shift is over, you go home alive.”

Actually, the first rule of police work, as generally understood by those of us who pay police to do it, is to protect the property and persons of the citizens they serve. Unfortunately, too many among the modern constabulary have internalized Connery’s fictionalized, Prohibition-era Chicago way, while adding a streak of militaristic zeal, such that today’s police seem utterly anathema to what they were a generation ago.

Concerned more with self-preservation and control than with public service, modern police stalk city streets like an occupying force tasked with quelling an unruly population. This mindset is manifest in urban centers across the ostensibly free world, and evidence squeaks out in furtively recorded video and tearful testimony from those who have been on the business end of contemporary policing.

It should not require bystanders with camera phones or a lucky dash-cam angle to exonerate a suspect and expose police misconduct. Therefore, as the nature of policing has evidently changed (and not for the better), and since the technology exists, a partial remedy is apparent: Put cameras on police.

Specifically, police officers interacting with the public, apart from narrowly defined undercover circumstances, should be required to wear cameras that record their actions. The footage from these devices should be obtainable through freedom of information and subpoena procedures, with the identities of private citizens obscured unless they give consent.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” bleat nincompoops who defend the surveillance state. Their logic is sound, but they invert the application of rights and obligations in a free society. To wit, while they are misbegotten in supposing government has a right to monitor the actions of private citizens, their “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” admonition would be perfectly apt if directed toward police or others invested with public trust.

Put it in purely semantic terms, if you prefer. Absent a compelling reason, the behavior of private citizens should remain just that: private. Likewise, the conduct of officers operating in a public capacity should, as the default procedure, be public.

This is a qualitative matter of common sense, for which a quantifiable case can also be made. For example, in the city of Rialto, California, the use of force by police dropped 60% and complaints against officers dropped by 80% in 2013, the first year body-worn police cameras were deployed.

Whether the knowledge they were being recorded curbed police excesses, or people consequently chose not to launch unfounded complaints, or both, the result affirms Justice Brandeis’ assertion that sunlight is, indeed, the best disinfectant.

My antipathy toward modern law enforcement has not been fundamental to my assimilation of public policy. I am not a reflexive, cop-hating anarchist. You’ve never seen me smashing a Starbuck’s window or storming a police barricade in a balaclava (though I submit I could sell that look). I even played as a ringer for a New York Police Department hockey team, as some drinking companions were officers from the local precinct and, on hearing I grew up in Canada, assumed I would be a stellar addition to their roster (a harmless stereotype, of which I disabused them on my very first shift).

If I were to identify a turning point in my assessment, it would be the G20 summit in my hometown of Toronto in 2010. During that disgraceful episode, police assaulted and rounded up innocent citizens en masse and held them in brutal conditions without charge.

The police chief responsible is precisely the sort of impenetrable cop you may have encountered, who speaks as though he is reading from a manual and, when confronted with hard questions, mumbles inanities about “safety.” As of this writing, he is still on the job and in good standing.

Purely anecdotally, while my lifelong circle of acquaintances includes no violent criminals (at least, not that I am aware), more people I know have been subjected to assault and brutality by police officers than by criminals.

This is a simple fact, albeit subject to the bounded rationality of my personal life, but it is sufficient for me to roll my eyes every time police mouth the desperately obsolete silly-bears about “putting their lives on the line each and every day” to protect the public.

The unfortunate police interactions of those known to me have occurred in cities across North America – with one egregious instance in Europe – and are sufficient that I, as a well-intentioned citizen who would never knowingly break the law, view police less as an ally than a threat.

To this, society’s reliable cadre of cop-affirming anachronists might reply, “Yeah, well next time someone’s breaking into your house, who ya gonna call, tough guy?” On that, a couple thoughts:

First, in the immediacy of a break-in, it seems less practical to make a phone call than to deal with the matter one’s self. One hopes that, even in today’s pansified culture, a man defending his home can still summon formidable force. Further, readers who maintain a confidence in police to stop crimes in progress have perhaps seen too many movies.

Second, and most important, if someone breaks down my door in the dead of night, as a law-abiding person but a student of current events, I suspect the police would be the ones most likely to do it. News reports may not refer to “home invasions” when the perpetrators are police officers, but the effect is the same – or worse.

In fact, given the choice, I would much prefer my door to be breached by unofficial thugs than the badge-carrying variety.

In a pajama-clad flurry of fists, profanity and weapons of opportunity, I expect I could subdue, or at least dissuade, a criminal intruder. An invading police officer, however – even if I have committed no crime, or if he simply has the wrong address – can call for backup, surround the premises, apply deadly force, then spout some nonsense to compliant media about there being “drugs” in the home or suspicion of “terrorist activity” in the residence. (To be clear, neither exist at my house.)

In either case, if one believes in the sanctity of private property and the Castle Doctrine as enunciated by William Pitt the elder, the law would be on my side. In the real world, however, the law has a funny way of coinciding with what forceful state agents say it is – that is, unless their actions are recorded for all to assess.

Warming to our theme of equating police with criminals out of uniform, police should be punished more harshly than civilians who commit the same crimes. Unlike private-sector criminals, police who transgress the law compound their offense by abusing the public trust, and using taxpayer-funded equipment to do so. Unfortunately, the opposite is largely the case.

Earlier this year in London, a police officer was convicted of assaulting a 30-year-old woman, Sarah Reed, accused of shoplifting (she was later convicted).

The actions of the officer, PC James Kiddie, were captured on the closed circuit television of the store Ms. Reed was accused of robbing. He was shown grabbing Ms. Reed by the hair, throwing her to the floor, and aiming repeated strikes at her head.

Officer Kiddie may be a brute, but if we assume he is not an idiot, it is doubtful he would have acted as he did if he realized he was being recorded.

His punishment consisted of 150 hours of community service and fines totalling several hundred dollars. Could a private citizen, acting without the auspices of law, expect such lenient treatment for an assault of this nature? Certainly, private citizens may not be called upon to contend with a shoplifter, but neither could they claim the legitimacy of law when acting violently.

Most unsettling about the incident is this – to whom could Ms. Reed call out for aid? “Help, police!” would be the reflex in an earlier age but, since it was a police officer himself committing the assault, one imagines that would only make things worse.

And it is this betrayal of public trust, this upending of social norms, that demands full disclosure of police conduct and harsh consequences for abuse.

There are two ways to do this, as TV cops have been advising for decades, “the hard way, or the easy way.” It says here, so long as police view their employers as the enemy, opting for militarized solutions to mundane situations, we should make them do things the hard way.