BERNSTEIN: Protect and serve
Police officers should be required to wear cameras to reduce incidents of police brutality
Recently, a video of Staten Island resident Eric Garner being choked to his death by a police officer has gone viral, prompting discussion of the issue of police brutality (an area in which the NYPD has become increasingly susceptible to criticism). Following this, another video involving excessive force from the NYPD has surfaced, in which a police officer allegedly stomped on drug suspect Jahmiel Cuffee’s head.
In the first case, the police officer allegedly violated an NYPD rule forbidding the use of chokeholds; in the second, the police officer could be accused of excessive force. Fortunately, in these particular cases, the aforementioned videos of the incidents will be able to help inform the investigations and inevitable cases surrounding the officers’ use of force. This can be remarkably effective, given that this past April, video footage was used effectively to prove five officers committed perjury in Illinois. But such footage is almost certainly an anomaly for cases of police brutality. The unfortunate truth about arrests is that their circumstances often rely too much on eyewitness testimony — and usually that testimony only concerns the officer and the arrestee, making it a “he said, she said” situation. In such situations, judges and jurors are probably more inclined to believe an officer’s testimony than that of an alleged criminal.
Fortunately, today we have access to technology that significantly improves our ability to adjudicate cases and administer justice, and possibly significantly decrease instances of police brutality. According to The New York Times, in Rialto, California, police officers are now required to wear cameras, resulting in an 88 percent drop in complaints against Rialto police officers, and a near-60 percent drop in use of force by those officers.
Rialto police chief William A. Farrar champions the use of cameras; even New York City’s own former and now current Police Commissioner Bill Bratton supports their use. Though former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has pointed out the logistical issues surrounding the implementation of camera use in cities as large as New York, the time and money it would take pales in comparison to the myriad benefits of such policies.
Camera usage allows the possibility not only of protecting the accused from police brutality, but also of protecting police officers who are wrongly accused of brutalizing citizens. They are not necessarily an anti-officer tool. Quite the contrary: as a purely objective resource, video footage will simply give us the evidence we need to correctly understand events as they have occurred.
The concerns about footage — aside from logistics — are twofold. First, there is a question of the invasion of an individual’s privacy, and second, whether or not footage may inhibit the police from performing their duty, out of fear that they may be prosecuted later.
The issue of privacy is persuasive, but ultimately the question of public safety is much more so. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which champions individual rights, has come out in support of requiring cameras on police officers, as a practical tool that can be limited in scope with laws regarding the dissemination of the videos taken and the amount of time the police can store them. The ACLU offers a good explanation for why these cameras are less of a privacy concern than other forms of government surveillance: they write in favor of surveillance “when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government” — as opposed to the government monitoring the public — the invasion of privacy, to the extent that it may happen, can serve to protect the individual from unchecked brutality. The organization offers a plethora of answers to basic privacy concerns: limitations on editing ability by the police, limiting cameras to uniformed officers, a new requirement that officers notify civilians that they are being recorded, deletion of data in a timely manner, only allowing public disclosure of the footage with the consent of the filmed party — the list of possible policies goes on.
The way in which police officers will react to this new equipment is at first more concerning, but it is important to view this shift in police policy in the long-run. As with all societal changes, as new generations of police officers enter training and join the police force, they will enter a system that already has camera usage in place; the fiercest opponents to camera usage will probably be the classes of officers who are soon retiring anyway. And once officers realize just how this footage can be used to their benefit, it should not be a tough sell. Perpetrators who know they are being filmed will have an incentive not to resist arrest or be violent towards an officer, and in situations of false accusations of police brutality, officers will have an objective record to corroborate their testimonies.
We are lucky to live in a time when technology is readily available to document these situations, but that technology serves no use unless we take advantage of it. We cannot rely on the presence of an eyewitness with a camera phone for every arrest — think how many other Rodney King situations there probably have been, without footage to corroborate the victim’s story. Requiring officers to wear cameras will be a smarter and more efficient way to ensure adherence to the law by all parties.
Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.