This week (8/12/13) a federal district judge found that the New York police stop and frisk tactic violated the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. As part of the remedy, she ordered that some police in each precinct of the city wear uniform cameras while on duty.
A few hours after that ruling was announced, Houston news programming featured dash cam video showing five or six Galveston police officers “arresting” a man on the beach. They stomped on and kicked him while he was lying face down and even held his face under water.
The time has come to require all police to wear operating cameras at all times while on duty. The technology is here; the only question is whether to do it.
A teenager’s smart phone shows the technology is available. The camera is smaller than a shirt button and the transmitter and battery are only slightly larger than a credit card. Even an undercover agent could, in most instances, wear one undetected. Data storage has improved to the point at which almost unlimited amounts can be saved cheaply (just ask the NSA).
The question, then, is whether it should be done.
Do cameras work? I began practicing law in Lubbock, Texas, in 1970. At that time, police headquarters were in a two story building with holding cells on the first floor connected to detective offices and interrogation rooms on the second by a long, straight, enclosed staircase. Detectives would take handcuffed prisoners up those stairs for questioning. A long, continuing series of prisoners were taken to the hospital with injuries suffered while they tried to escape and fell down those stairs handcuffed. The city installed a camera, connected to a then-new video tape recorder, aimed at those stairs. These injuries quickly stopped – as if by magic.
Most people were introduced to police videos in 1990 when a bystander recorded four Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. Their acquittal of brutality charges sparked the most destructive riots in the city’s history. (The video looked much like the Galveston one mentioned above.)
In an effort to forestall complaint of officer misbehavior, some state police began installing dash cams to record all traffic stops made by their personnel. Although some of the first videos released showed extremely improper actions, complaints soon tapered off; and now these cameras in patrol cars are almost universal. Bad behavior was not totally prevented by these cameras however. Earlier this year two Texas Highway Patrol officers were caught subjecting two women they stopped to roadside body cavity searches. Both officers have been disciplined.
The criminal justice system would improve greatly if all police officers were required to wear functioning cameras while on duty. This requirement should include both uniformed and plain clothes police and even undercover agents except in rare, closely controlled situations approved in advance.
Too many trials depend on the unsupported testimony of a police officer or on a search warrant based on the hearsay statements of anonymous informers. Required video recordings would tie that evidence to objectively established facts. “Testilying”, the routine perjury by all too many police, would stop. A federal judge determined that over eighty-eight percent of the New York stop-and-frisk confrontations did not result in citation or arrest. The police would be much more careful about reasonable suspicion to make a stop if that confrontation were on video. Trials would no longer be a matter of “He said; she said”, but would rest on fact.
Police behavior itself would be better controlled. On the day I write this, two officers in different Houston police agencies were charged in separate sexual assaults while on duty. Even if wearing cameras did not deter this kind of behavior, it would make proof of the offense would be more certain.
Both sides of the table would profit from cop cams. Police are frequently charged, often unfairly, with misconduct including theft, drug dealing, assault, sexual assault, and oppression. The honest officer’s best defense would be a video recording of the event in question.
Cop cams would not be revolutionary or without precedent. Police forces adopted video early and progressed from police station cameras to video in interrogation rooms to dash cams as these systems proved themselves and technology improved. Cop cams will merely the next step in this progress. Like dash cams, they will be adopted gradually. Small units will try them out, and others will join as procedures are developed and technology sorted out. However, universal use will come sooner than most expect.
Cop cams are coming. They will protect citizens and professionalize police. The sooner they arrive, the better off we all will be.