the focus is sharp in the city

Yesterday, inspired by Stephen Metcalf’s essay on Robert Nozick, I compared libertarianism to kudzu — you bring it in to prevent the erosion of your civil rights, and the next thing you know it’s taken over everything. Then you have to chop it back and start all over again.

I thought it was a very cute metaphor.

Nonetheless…. There is erosion, and something must be done about it. So, today, two stories for my libertarian brothers and sisters.

First, from David Sirota of Salon, a police officer in Rochester, NY arrested a woman last month for videotaping a traffic stop. The video appeared on the internet this month and has been making the rounds. What’s interesting is that the officer who conducts the arrest, Mario Masic, tries to say all the right things — “I don’t feel safe with you behind us” — to justify what is obviously intimidation. But the safety line is unpersuasive, partly because, since there are three officers on the scene, all facing in different directions, it would be impossible to be “behind” or “in front of” them as a group, but also because he mentions at the outset that he thinks she’s “anti-police,” which is obviously what this arrest is really about.

Anyway, watch for yourself:

But maybe you think that woman was being unreasonable and maybe she deserved what she got. On the other hand, here’s a story my friend Bethany at the Maine Civil Liberties Union sent me — Al-Jazeera has video from a police shooting in Miami, along with the remarkable tale of how the cameraman saved the footage:

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but Narces Benoit’s decision to videotape a shooting by Miami police landed him in jail after officers smashed his cell-phone camera.

It was 4am on May 30 when Benoit and his girlfriend Erika Davis saw officers firing dozens of bullets into a car driven by Raymond Herisse, a suspect who hit a police officer and other vehicles while driving recklessly. Herisse died in the hail of lead, and four bystanders also suffered gunshot wounds, the Miami Herald newspaper reported.

Police noticed the man filming the shooting and an officer jumped into his truck, and put a pistol to his head, Benoit said. The video shows officers crowding around Herisse’s vehicle before opening fire, followed by indistinguishable yelling at onlookers, including Benoit, to stop filming.

The cop yelled: “Wanna be a [expletive] paparazzi?” Benoit recounted in a TV interview.

“My phone was smashed, he stepped on it, handcuffed me,” the 35-year-old car stereo technician told CNN.

Despite his phone being destroyed, Benoit was able to save the footage by taking the memory card out of the device and putting it in his mouth before handing it over to police, he said, adding that officers smashed several other cameras in the chaos which followed the shooting.

(I should say that if you follow the link and watch the video, please be warned that it is somewhat graphic; it’s footage of police officers firing into a car dozens of times and killing a man.)

This is not, of course, about police being able to do their jobs. I’m perfectly willing to believe that the traffic stop in the first video was legitimate. The second video is obviously much more gruesome, but even here police may have been acting reasonably — according to the police, the man who was killed tried to run the officers down with his car.

The point is that police don’t always act reasonably. From Rodney King to Oscar Grant, we’ve seen that video can be a powerful tool in holding police accountable. (Granted in the King case, at least, the accountability was not immediately forthcoming.) It’s not just that video provides legal evidence against individual malfeasant cops; it’s that by providing multiple, independent, graphic pieces of visual documentation, these videos let people who’ve experienced police abuse know that they’re not alone.

Most of us have relatively few contacts with the police, and even fewer contacts involve any police misbehavior. If you’re white and lucky enough to live in a place with a well-disciplined police force, you could go your whole life without ever experiencing any sort of intimidation, harassment, or wrongful arrest. Unless you’re one of the kids from The Wire, seeing the police abuse their powers is not a part of your everyday experience. So there’s a powerful tendency for many of us to feel that if the police do something it’s probably right, and if they yell at you or arrest you or surround you with weapons drawn, you were probably in the wrong.

This is, of course, no healthier an attitude toward the police than is knee-jerk hostility.

Video surveillance also gives bystanders something to do when they suspect police wrongdoing — something that doesn’t involve either getting confrontational with the cops on the scene or calling still more cops in, either of which escalates the situation and makes it more dangerous still. And it reminds the police that they are accountable to the community, something that’s easy to forget when you carry a gun and have wide legal latitude to exercise both force and the arrest power.

This is not to say citizen video surveillance (or, more properly, “sousveillance“) isn’t potentially annoying. And like any tool of democracy, it can be misused. Check out this toolbag hassling a couple of cops for being a toe into the no-parking zone:

But that kind of thing is probably the price we pay for living in a free society, and the cops in that video handle it the way cops should handle everything: with professionalism, courtesy, and an ability to separate what’s criminal from what’s just stupid. If you can’t bring those things to the table, maybe you shouldn’t be a cop. (Remember this joker, who pulled a gun on dumb hipsters who threw snowballs at his car?)

But perhaps the best reason cops should be required to submit to videotaping is for their own protection. Consider this ABC report, which goes under the provocative headline “Caught On Tape! Cop Punches Teen Girl!” If you only read the headline, or if the story were reported without video, you would probably come away with the impression that a cop had wantonly used force on a small girl for no clear reason. But looking at the video, it becomes clear that (a) the girl in question started pushing the cop while he was already struggling to control another suspect, and (b) she’s at least his size and maybe bigger. This doesn’t necessarily exonerate the cop, but it certainly makes the situation ambiguous.

Despite the obvious social advantages of video evidence of police behavior (whether to condemn or exonerate the officers involved), at least three states have passed laws making it illegal to film a police officer on duty, even in a public place where the officer has no expectation of privacy. (Illinois’ unusually punitive electronic eavesdropping statutes actually make this a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, while at the same time allowing the police to record video and audio of suspects without making that video available to defendants at the trial stage.) It seems almost certain that one of these statutes will be challenged in the Supreme Court at some point, which seems likely, at a minimum to give the conservative justices (especially Scalia) new opportunities to waffle over whether the Constitution contains a general right to privacy or only privacy in the sense of a stupefyingly literal interpretation of the phrase “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

(Scalia’s past opinions: yes to privacy within the home, even if you’re growing weed, unless the cops come to your door without a search warrant and then claim to “hear you destroying evidence”; no to a right to “informational privacy.”)

But in the meantime, let’s hope that police departments take it upon themselves to equip all their officers with both car-mounted and body-mounted cameras. Because if they don’t, we’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff like this:

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One Response to the focus is sharp in the city

  1. Pingback: follow-up on the Rochester police-taping case | The Handsome Camel

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