The Body-Worn Camera As State's Witness: How Cops Control Recordings
from the the-unseeing-eye dept
“But for video,” as they say. (Well, mainly Scott Greenfield…)
Abusive conduct by police officers — up to and including killing someone for, say, holding a plastic bucket — has always flown under the “your word against ours” radar. But now everyone has a camera, even the cops.
The push for body-worn cameras is still a good idea, but it has many, many flaws. It won’t save the nation from police misconduct but it will put a dent in it. Back when the NYPD was ordered to begin a body camera pilot program, then-Mayor Bloomberg said the devices would become nothing more than another way to play “gotcha” with good cops.
A camera on the lapel or hat of a police officer… He didn’t turn the right way. My god, he DELIBERATELY did it. It’s a solution that’s not a solution…
Bloomberg was prescient, but not in the way he imagined it. He felt cops would be accused of covering something up by failing to get the best angle when recording an arrest. But it looks like the limitations of the cameras themselves are capable of covering up bad behavior even without the active involvement of the officers wearing them.
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley pointed this out last year in a post that echoes Bloomberg’s complaint, but with the view that cops could use cameras to defeat transparency, rather than participate in it. We already know cameras operated by police officers seem to develop technical issues during controversial interactions. Some are switched off. Some produce video but no audio. Some develop intermittent problems that can’t be replicated by tech support, but always seem to have captured everything but potentially damning footage.
Even when they’re left on, they can still be used to control the narrative, as Stanley points out.
A stellar example of what I’m talking about can be found in the case of a man named Marcus Jeter, who was pulled over, beaten, and arrested by a Bloomfield, New Jersey officer in 2012. The officer who is beating Jeter can be heard on video yelling, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting! Why are you trying to take my fucking gun! Get off my gun!” In the officer’s dashcam video, it is unclear whether Jeter was, in fact, resisting and/or trying to take the officer’s gun, and Jeter was charged with a number of criminal counts including assault. Internal affairs cleared the involved officers of any wrongdoing and prosecutors offered Jeter a plea deal of 5 years in prison.
Fortunately for Jeter, a second video surfaced showing the incident from another angle. The video was from the dashcam on another patrol car that arrived at the scene as backup, and which prosecutors said was not initially provided to them by police. In the second video, it is clear that Jeter had his hands in the air from the beginning before being attacked by the officer. (The police officer was charged with aggravated assault, and he and another officer also faced charges including conspiracy and falsifying reports. A third officer pleaded guilty to tampering and retired. All charges against Jeter were dropped.)
By falsely shouting that Jeter was resisting and trying to take his gun, even as he beat the motorist, the officer was clearly acting for the cameras, aware that he was playing a role in a public drama where later interpretations of what took place would be contested. And his aggressive physical behavior was matched by an equally aggressive attempt to define how his own actions would be interpreted. He almost succeeded.
Officers are actors and directors in their own scenes. Even when performances are captured by bystanders and their cell phones, there’s still plenty of “drama.” Multiple cops swarm the same suspect, blocking the body from view. Officers shout “Stop resisting!” even when subjects are prone with hands behind their back and under the weight of four or five cops. This allows officers to deliver extra amounts of force, instantly justified by the repeated shouts about resistance.
This scenario has played out again. Footage captured by police body cameras appears to show a tough, physical struggle to subdue a suspect. Shouts of “stop resisting” continue throughout the recording. The up-close-and-personal body cam footage gives every appearance that officers are wrestling with a highly-combative suspect. But footage captured by another camera shows an entirely different scenario.
Here’s Stanley’s description of what actually happened, as captured by a security camera:
It’s hard to imagine what more a suspect could do to avoid being beaten by the police. Derrick Price not only puts his hands high in the air, he then proceeds to lie spread-eagle on the pavement before any of the Marion County sheriff’s deputies reach him. And yet the deputies beat him. What appears to be taking place in this video (as in many others, including the granddaddy of them all, the Rodney King video) is that police officers, angry at a suspect for fleeing (and perhaps disobeying previous orders to stop), have taken it upon themselves to punish the suspect for that disobedience.
Compare that to the “official” footage (which starts at 1:42 in the video above) captured by the officer’s body camera. (There’s a side-by-side comparison of the footage available here.)
[T]he difference between the two videos is… a result of intentional manipulation by the officers beating Price, who repeatedly yell “stop resisting!” as they kick and punch his unmoving body. And the body camera never properly captures the beating of Price, actually facing fully away from the action at some points. It is hard to tell how intentional this was on the part of the officer wearing the camera, but it’s easy to imagine that the officer knew that what his colleagues were doing was not acceptable, and intentionally sought to avoid videotaping them.
The devices that were supposed to result in better policing are becoming complicit in their abusive behavior. Stanley notes the camera was turned on far too late (after the officers had already swarmed the suspect) and turned off far too early (before the suspect was actually in custody). If this had been the only recording available, “our word against yours” would have been completely unassailable. After all, the police department had footage of a highly-physical struggle with a combative suspect. Without the footage captured by an impartial surveillance cam, everything about the arrest would have appeared justified.