Turning the Camera on the Police

David Sirota

What’s good for the police apparently isn’t good for the people – or so the law enforcement community would have us believe when it comes to surveillance. 

The only police officers who are threatened by cellphone cameras are those who want to break civil liberties laws with impunity.

That’s a concise summary of a new trend noted by National Public Radio last week – the trend whereby law enforcement officials have been trying to prevent civilians from using cellphone cameras in public places as a means of deterring police brutality. 

Oddly, the effort – which employs both forcible arrests of videographers and legal proceedings against them – comes at a time when the American Civil Liberties Union reports that an increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems.” 

Then again, maybe it’s not odd that the two trends are happening simultaneously. Maybe they go hand in hand. Perhaps as more police officers use cameras to monitor every move we make, they are discovering the true power of video to independently document events. And as they see that power, they don’t want it turned against them. 

But wait – why not?

Though you’d expect that uncomfortable question to evoke dissembling, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Jim Pasco was quite straightforward about it. 

Police officers, he told NPR, need to move quickly, in split seconds, without giving a lot of thought to what the adverse consequences for them might be.” He added that law enforcement authorities believe that anything that’s going to have a chilling effect on an officer moving – an apprehension that he’s being videotaped and may be made to look bad – could cost him or some citizen their life.” 

Obviously, nobody wants to stop officers from doing their much-needed job (well, nobody other than budget-cutting politicians who are slashing police forces). In fact, organizations such as the NAACP have urged citizens to videotape police precisely to make sure police are doing ALL of their job – including protecting individuals’ civil liberties.

This is not some academic or theoretical concern, and video recording is not a needless exercise in Bill of Rights zealotry. The assault on civil liberties in America is a very real problem and monitoring police is absolutely required in light of recent data. 

As USA Today reported under the headline Police brutality cases on rise since 9/11,” situations in which police, prison guards and other law enforcement authorities have used excessive force or other tactics to violate victims’ civil rights increased 25 percent” between 2001 and 2007. Last year alone, more than 1,500 officers were involved in excessive force complaints, according to the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project.

Considering this, Pasco has it exactly wrong. We should want more officers feeling apprehension” about breaking civil liberties laws, we should hope more of them give a lot of thought to what the adverse consequences” will be if they trample someone’s rights and we should crave an immediate chilling effect” on such violations. 

That’s what the practice of cellphone recording is supposed to do – not mimic the national security state’s Big Brother culture, but prevent that security state from trampling our freedoms. 

Law enforcement officials, of course, don’t like the cellphone cameras because they don’t want any check on police power. So they’ve resorted to fearmongering allegations about lost lives. But the only police officers who are threatened by cellphone cameras are those who want to break civil liberties laws with impunity. The rest have nothing to worry about and everything to gain from a practice that simply asks them to remember the all-too-forgotten part of their protect and serve” motto – the part about protecting the public’s civil rights.

David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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