Monitoring the Police

23:25 Thu 21 Jun 2007. Updated: 01:26 22 Jun 2007
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I just read an article about the ACLU’s plans to give out video cameras to local residents in St. Louis for the purpose of videotaping the police, and I also read the Fark thread on it. I’m rather disturbed by the number of people in that thread who exhibit such hostility towards the idea that the police should be monitored in such a fashion.

The first objection appears to stem from a complete lack of understanding that the police are public servants and would be taped while on duty, and somehow accords them a “right to privacy” in their daily work that is clearly very dubious under US law (there’s generally no right to privacy for people in public places, and police on duty will obviously be in public places) and that is also quite ridiculous—it should be completely obvious that public servants engaged in public duty aer accountable in ways that do not allow for the same privacy rights as private citizens.

The next objection is based on the idea that the taping will lead to “doctored” video footage. There’s something to this, at least theoretically, but not much. It’s not that easy (at least not yet) to doctor footage undetectably, so courts wouldn’t be fooled, and beyond that it’s doubtful that this would outweight the benefits of greater police accountability. Furthermore, those with the resources to do that kind of editing are not going to need the cameras handed out by the ACLU, so the specter of that doctoring seems irrelevant.

Most of all, however, there’s a widespread belief that there are almost no “bad cops”, and that cops are trustworthy and honorable, and that if they do step over the line and that’s captured on video, it should be forgiven as understandable and likely “provoked”.

I do not think that this last view fits in with the available information.

The first and most obvious problem is that cops identify, group-wise, as cops. They’re individuals going through a lot of stress, operating in dangeroud environments, environments often featuring a lot of aggression. This obviously promotes an “us versus them” mentality, as group loyalty becomes quite important to individual survival. That loyalty is corrosive to the idea of police as public servants, however, because its effect means that police can’t really be trusted (understandably) to police themselves, or to report on the abuses of other police. An excellent demonstration of this is trying to get a police complaint form (that link is just one of many).

Beyond the basic effects of that, there’s also the fact that the police in this country are increasingly militarized, and using greater and greater force. I find this a rather disturbing trend and believe that anything that slows it even slightly, such as police fearing that they might be under video surveillance, would be a good thing.

Separate from the above, but still relevant, is the consideration that it’s quite likely that we live in a country with a two-tiered justice system, where the lower classes, and especially the non-white lower classes, simply do not have the same legal rights in practice that the middle and upper classes do (it might be three-tiered, really, given the huge impact that money has for the upper classes). Abuse goes on there quite frequently, and needs to be stopped (I know how naive that sounds, but naive or not, it is still true).

Those who argue against this kind of surveillance, and against mandatory recording as part of every police officer’s life, are essentially arguing for the police to operate in secrecy. Without corroboration, the non-police side of the story will usually not be believed in court (or, often, elsewhere), so if the police involved are lying, they are succeeding in suppressing the truth. If in general they’re not lying, they should obviously have no problem with the surveillance. I can’t see any reason for individuals to support that lack of verification unless they are basically committed to authoritarianism and grasping for whatever justification sounds “reasonable”.

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2 Responses to “Monitoring the Police”

  1. medicis Says:

    increasing police militarism and weaponization is by design

  2. Tadhg Says:

    medicis: I agree, but in this post I’m trying to examine why so many people embrace this increase in authoritarianism.

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