Updated: In the wake of the killing of the so called “Gentle Giant” by cops in New York, and the even more recent shooting death of Mike Brown and the police response following the protests and looting that followed, I’m sad to say this article instantly became relevant again just week’s after it was first published. Police militarization and the war tactics they are now using on American citizens have been on full display in Ferguson, Mo. And the solution offered in this article would have already proven itself as invaluable in the Brown case.
If you’re American and aren’t scared of the police, you’re either rich and white, living in a rural community or not paying attention. Reprehensible, criminal, outrageous and brutal conduct by police officers seems like a weekly if not daily occurrence these days. And that’s just the stuff that gets recorded. Just this year we’ve had a police officer shoot a man while he was in handcuffs (not to be mistaken for the other time that happened), a police officer pushing a paraplegic out of his wheel chair, a police officer sitting on top of a woman while punching her in the face, a police officer fire at a minivan full of children, and that’s just the tiniest of lists of questionable conduct caught on tape. Don’t get me wrong, I have friends and family members who are or were cops, and I know most cops are good, brave people, but I’ve also known some cops who are not and some who are long overdue for a discussion regarding forced retirement, or jail time.
After traveling the world, I can without a doubt say that many parts of the US are a police state and I fear the cops in America more than any other country I’ve been to with the possible exception of China (see the company we’re in). Cops are literally everywhere, and, depending on your race and/or which part of town you’re in, you have a very real chance of interacting with them on any given day. Sadly, every interaction is something many Americans rightfully dread and fear. A police officer in a bad mood, high on power or simply making a mistake can easily escalate any interaction into an arrest or something much worse. I once had a very angry police officer threaten to arrest me over a noise complaint even though he had come to the wrong house, and I was home alone taking a nap. I can also sincerely say I wouldn’t want some officers to know I wrote something like this while interacting with them for fear of their temperament.
Some might feel it’s a debate worthy topic to ask if the police are getting more aggressive in America, or if there’s just more cameras around, but the correct answer is the former. Police are more and more taking on a mindset that it’s them against the world and are valuing their safety more than the public’s. At a SWAT team convention in Vegas recently, SWAT team members from around the country were brandishing T-shirts with cute sayings like “You raise ’em. We cage ’em” and “Save the Police Time, Beat Yourself Up” One police department in California went so far as to write on their actual squad cars, “We’ll Kick Your Ass.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like police viewing or talking to the people they are supposed to protect and serve this way.
Going hand in hand with this aggressive mindset, police organizations around the country are looking more and more like paramilitary organizations, especially with the arrival of tons of leftover equipment from American’s decade long wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. In fact, there was a town in Wisconsin where there hasn’t been a murder in five years that asked for and got a surplus armed personal carrier from the army. Disconcertingly, these departments all have the view that since they got it, they’re gonna flaunt it, and are deploying heavily armed SWAT teams now more than ever even as America’s crime rates hit record lows.
However, there is no doubt that the prevalence of cameras in modern society is bringing a lot more attention to police brutality that has long existed. I assure you, Rodney King was not the first person to be savagely beaten by the police. That said, many police officers do all they can to avoid being filmed including arresting, harassing and making false charges against people who do so. Despite courts in all but three states, Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts, saying time and time again that police, while performing their public duty, are allowed to be filmed, police continue threatening people who do so with arrest. Some officers claim that being filmed puts them in danger. How? I don’t know. Other cops have become media savvy and have taken to muddying the waters and laying the groundwork for their defense when caught in apparently compromising situations. They do this by talking directly to the cameras filming them and saying that whatever provoked their behavior occurred before the filming started.
Luckily, the solution to all this, making police officers feel safer, making sure the whole story of a situation is properly documented and making sure police officers are not abusing people is to have them wear cameras at all times. We have the technology, and it would be an invaluable tool to investigators and our justice system, and it would be a huge boost to the public’s confidence. One city in California that has already done this and saw the use of force drop 60% and the number of citizen complaints fall 88%. While some challenge the exactness of these numbers, I don’t see where there’s really anything left to discuss. In the course of performing their public duty, police officers should have no right to privacy. Filming their actions would make police safer since criminals would know that even if they harm a police officer to get away, they will still be caught on film. Corrupt police officers would have a much harder time hiding and a police officer’s use of force would be much more easily seen for what it is, good or bad. Not only should police not object to this, they should welcome it. That many of them won’t is both telling and scary.
SideBar: If you agree that it’s well-past time for police to be wearing cameras, we here at NetSideBar have created a petition on the White House’s website called Make Police Wear Cameras while on Duty. If it get’s 100,000 signatures, President Obama is guaranteed to respond to it directly. Or share directly: