But For Video, Volume 31 (Update)

We’re well past the point where the impact of video on “what really happens” is subject to debate.  Frank Pasquale at Co-Op has taken a video of pure, sheer, shockingly gratuitous violence by a cop and, in the spirit of my “but for video” posts, shows how the video exposed yet another act of mindless violence, flipping the roles of victim and criminal upside down.

If the moment hadn’t been caught on tape, it’s quite possible the victim here would be facing criminal charges, and the policeman in question could be plotting another assault.

Not only is it quite possible, but it’s been the natural scheme of things for a very long time.  The presumption o regularity is not merely a legal concept, but a framework for all of us to digest the world around us and make sense of it.  As video has come to teach us, there is far more happening in the world that just isn’t “regular” and doesn’t fit the paradigm.

So first, the video:

Frank’s take is that videos such as this are the best argument in favor of surveillance, our ubiquitous “eye in the sky” and everywhere else, that has provided us with a view of a world that we never believed existed, until we couldn’t deny it because there it was, on video.

It’s not that I disagree with Frank’s premise, but I question whether this is the correct tradeoff.  As you watch the video, note that there is a second police office a few feet behind the one who just gratuitously shoves the cyclist off his bike and sends him flying.  While everyone is looking at the cop doing the harm, I wondered about the other cop.

There is where my view may differ from others.  I’ve written about this many times with regard to the Abner Louima case and others.  The scenario repeats itself in almost every case of a cop gone wrong:  We have one or more “bad cops” who are actively engaged in criminal conduct under color of the shield, and then we have one or more observer cops.  If we assume that police aren’t all criminals, and that most are dedicated to their job and oath, then the measure of wrong is not the cop who did the shoving, but the cop behind him who watched.

The problem with the second cop is more significant institutionally than the first, yet the second cop almost always seems to fly below the radar.  There are two basic failures here by the second cop:  First, he didn’t stop cop 1 (in this instance, it was unlikely that he could, but in many other instances there is ample opportunity for cop 2 to intervene and stop the conduct).  Second, he won’t tell the truth about what just happened, which is why these videos have been so significant in disclosing criminal conduct by police.  In the past, cop 1 would have fabricated an excuse for his conduct and cop 2 would have backed him up.

Whenever these scenarios go public, the old cliché of “one bad apple” is pulled out to deflect our attention from how pervasive these incidents are. I was about to write “have become,” but that’s the problem Frank posts about, since one must assume that the problem had always existed but that we neither knew nor believed claims of police criminal conduct for lack of a video.

My view is that these videos reflect to independent levels of misconduct, the initial crime and the coverup.  Not only do we have the shoving cop as the “bad apple,” but the observer cop as the enabler of criminal conduct by a police officer.  The observer cop will be ignored, go unprosecuted and remain on the force unscathed by his misconduct.

Before I’m inclined to agree that pervasive surveillance, with its impact on privacy for all, is required to keep tabs on the cop and criminal (assuming they are different people) alike, I would hope to see a change in the mindset of the public to demand that our observer cop be held responsible for his role in this disgraceful show.  Why should we be subject to constant pervasive surveillance while he is let off the hook?

As for the Blue Wall of Silence, which forbids cop 2 from doing what is right when it involves a brother law enforcement officer, my position is that until we cleanse these officers from law enforcement altogether, take away their gun and shield, not to mention accrued pension benefits, we will never have a police culture that takes understands its duty to serve the public. 

Let’s change this first, or at least try, before we happily sacrifice our privacy.  Cop 2 is unworthy of the sacrifice of my privacy, and I am not prepared to give it up because cops remain unwilling to understand and fulfill their duty to the public.

Update:  I hate when I post something, only to find someone else has posted as well and I didn’t see it in time to incorporate it into my thoughts.  Howard Wasserman at PrawfsBlawg picked up on Frank’s video as well, and runs with it in a different direction altogether.

But this example also illustrates the limits on video as proof, if this incident ever becomes the subject of criminal or civil litigation. While our brute-sense impression of the action depicted in the video is that the officer clearly used unreasonable and excessive force, there is much the video does not necessarily show. Why did the officer pick this guy out and what was his reason for acting (Frank notes this was “seemingly without provocation–the video just does not tell us), which will be a key question in litigation? Did the rider say something to the officer? Did the officer reasonably fear the rider was coming at him? Was the rider carrying something that caught the officer’s eye (given the video’s angle, we never see the front of the rider or his arms)? From the video alone, we simply do not know.

Does Wasserman play the police apologist?  I think not, as he uses his point to question the Supreme Court’s Scott v. Harris decision, where Justice Scalia used a video to “prove” police justification for violenting stopping an “obviously” dangerous vehicle.  And to some extent, his point is well taken that a snippet of video can distort our understanding of what happened, and leave us to believe we know more than we really do.  This is the basis of my issues with the “magic bullet” solution of videotaping defendant statements as the cure for improper interrogation.

But should we speculate about zebras when we hear hoofbeats?  That’s a problem too, when there remains such a strong inclination to side with normalcy when confronted with a video like this, which undermines our faith in how normal society is supposed to work.

This brings me back to my basic premise: When police culture has rendered our faith in the integrity and honesty of the cops suspect, as so many videos have turned up to prove what clients have told their lawyers for generations but couldn’t be proven before, then we have got to demand that police culture be changed.

And spare me the sanctimonious self-absorbed cops-are-our-heros excuse.  Cops are supposed to be cops.  They don’t get an award for not being violent criminals.

15 comments on “But For Video, Volume 31 (Update)

  1. Windypundit

    I had a similar reaction to the Anthony Abbate incident here in Chicago. He was the cop caught on video beating a female bartender who refused to serve him.

    So some cop gets drunk and turns into a jerk. Big deal. Charge him, terminate him, move on.

    Then rumors started to come out that other officers tried to pressure the bartender and bar owner to keep quiet, perhaps even threatening to plant drugs in the bar and on the bar’s customers.

    That seemed like a much bigger story. To carry out their threats, the other cops would have to steal the drugs from somewhere, plant them on innocent people, and then perjure themselves in court, all under color of authority. That’s much scarier than one drunken cop. It’s a criminal conspiracy within the police department.

    No video, though, so it didn’t get much attention from the media.

    Abbate’s trial is coming up in November. As far as I know, no one else has been charged.

  2. Packratt

    The other problem with using such cases to argue in favor of ubiquitous surveillance involves questions over who has access to those recordings and whether a police-owned piece of video that showed police misconduct would ever see the light of day if, well, the police had complete control over it. (not to mention that departments still fight the placement of cameras where most misconduct takes place: in the interrogation rooms, hallways, and holding cells of police departments.)

    In Seattle the videos that hint at police misconduct are never supplied by the police, they tend to be from privately owned surveillance footage. When it’s dashcam footage or footage that was taken as evidence by the police that footage never makes it to the public’s view, even after many FOIA requests.

    In my case, for example, there are two separate videos of what happened to me when I was beaten by a mob of neonazis and the police mistreated me. Several FOIA requests by me and two other major media outlets later and I still can’t gain access to those videos even though police admit they show the attacks. They just refuse to release them even though I should have access to them since they are about me.

    Then there is the Gosline case where Gosline claims he filmed the beating of Alley-Barnes by several officers in Seattle, only to be detained and have his cellphone camera erased by the police while he was in custody. (while cruisers did have dashcams, they were not pointed at the incident and only recorded Alley-Barnes’ voice screaming “oh god… please stop kicking me”. officers were cleared and promoted while Alley-Barnes won a settlement later).

    When the police aren’t afraid to arrest people and destroy evidence like that, what would prompt someone to think that they wouldn’t do the same when their own cameras are recording their misconduct?

  3. Joel Rosenberg

    Skeptical guy that I am, I have this suspicion that, from time to time, official police videos of police misconduct may, in fact, have been disappeared.

    Then again, that’s just because it’s been well-documented that such things have happened. In the fairly famous St. George MO “Bad Cop Gone Wild” video, the cruiser tape was disappeared.

    And not just the cop videos, either.

    A local reporter witnessed a thumping in north Minneapolis, earlier this year. (Just for the record, it may well have been a lawful thumping — there’s every reason to believe that the underlying arrest was both lawful and proper, and criminals have been known to really resist arrest; the force necessary to take them into custody can be entirely unpleasant to watch, and utterly lawful and proper at the same time).

    She whipped out her camera phone and started recording it.

    An MPD cop ran up, and grabbed her camera phone, and ran off; the MPD later claimed that it was “evidence.”

    For whatever reason, no evidence of any use of force whatsoever was on the phone when, after some decidedly shameful begging, she eventually got her phone back.

  4. Packratt

    “Disappeared” evidence reminds me of the  Zolt Dornay case here in Seattle where an off duty officer with a long history of complaints allegedly hit a paralegal with his motorcycle, assaulted her, then when the crowd who witnessed it turned on him he fired off several rounds into the crowd, shooting and severely wounding a local defense attorney in the process.

    All this happened in an well-traveled touristy alleyway where several taverns and shops had CCTV cameras. Well, when an outside police agency went to look for the video during an investigation the business owners said the Seattle police obtained the footage but the SPD said no such videos existed.

    Guess it all goes back to SHG’s point… If officers are willing to not only look the other way when they witness police misconduct first hand, but also actively participate in that misconduct and enable it by covering for that misconduct, then there really is no impetus to an officer “dutifully” destroying video evidence as his part of that conspiratorial blue wall brotherhood.

    …after all, as Chicago PD’s own Keith Herrera said in answer to his own role in the SOS scandal there: It started out small, lying on reports to do what needed to be done to put ‘bad guys’ behind bars… once that became easy and commonplace there was little difference between doing that and doing all the other illegal things they ended up doing to suspects and bystanders alike… they didn’t see it as wrong until they were caught, and even then some still don’t.

  5. Karl Mansoor

    “…until we cleanse these officers from law enforcement altogether…”

    You are going to have to do a whole lot of cleansing. Even if the “observer” cop spoke up, the odds are that it would do nothing but serve to make him a target for retaliation. At best it would provide a sacrificial lamb that would offer temporary appeasement.


    “When police culture has rendered our faith in the integrity and honesty of the cops suspect, as so many videos have turned up to prove what clients have told their lawyers for generations but couldn’t be proven before, then we have got to demand that police culture be changed.”

    Get society to demand that police culture change as it pertains to the Code of Silence? A similar challenge would be yelling fire in a home occupied by the hearing impaired.

  6. SHG

    I never said it was easy.  It’s all about the culture; if we can change the culture of cops to match the image they want us to accept, maybe there’s a chance.

    The problem is that the alternative, what we have now, is unacceptable.  As it sinks into the general consciousness that there’s something seriously wrong with cops, and that it’s not a “one bad apple” thing but a pervasive cultural problem, maybe we will have a chance to fix it.

    To borrow from Judy “the Love Goddess” Tenuta, “it could happen.”

  7. Karl Mansoor

    I did not mean to sound defeatist. I tried to make positive changes in negative aspects of police culture over the years and it took a toll on me. However, it is a vital issue to continue to address.

  8. Windypundit

    Wasserman is right that context is important. For example, the cop might have witnessed the cyclist commit a crime—assaulting a pedestrian, say—and acted quicky to make the arrest.

    Perhaps that would have been his statement if he’d seen the video first. However, he apparently didn’t know about the video, because in his statement (Smoking Gun has it) he claims the cyclist came at him and knocked him over in a deliberate attack. This is contradicted by the video.

    I think the lesson here is that if you have video of a cop doing something bad and you really want to nail him, hold onto it until after he’s put his story on the record.

  9. SHG

    I’ve seen the paperwork as well, and I plan to address it tomorrow.  I have a different lesson in mind, though.

  10. Joel Rosenberg

    Well, not in that, no; the attempts at bribery were done through non-cop beards, and they weren’t caught on tape. That said, there’s a fair number of Chicago cops under indictment on other stuff — like the ones who decided to off the rats within their unit who had been talking to the Feds, say.

  11. Simple Justice

    Follow-Up on the “Big Shove”

    In last week’s “But for Video” post, I had the honor of presenting a little home town magic as a video camera caught a police officer nail a bicycle in mid-flight during the Critical Mass cycle protest down 7th Avenue.

  12. Simple Justice

    Follow-Up on the “Big Shove”

    In last week’s “But for Video” post, I had the honor of presenting a little home town magic as a video camera caught a police officer nail a bicycle in mid-flight during the Critical Mass cycle protest down 7th Avenue.

  13. roy anthony

    I have been the victim of police corruption here in the UK. For 3 and a half years i tried to get the police sergeant prosecuted and gain access to compensation, (the corruption cost me 350k sterling uk and ruined my business).
    I spoke to at least a dozen police officers over that 3 year period, (most of them chosen randomly) most gave me stern looks, said nothing and walked away. 1 was apologetic and a couple told me to F*** off.
    What are the chances of picking a dozen officers at random who all just happened to be corrupt also, (ANY knowing officer is guilty of aiding and abetting once they know the facts or perhaps assisting a criminal after the fact!)
    The statistical assumption here is that there is an innate culture of criminality within the policeforce, (this force being Manchester UK)
    There is also an innate culture of the same corruption in all government depts…as i contacted 3 different govenment agency’s… all of whom rung their hands and shrugged their shoulders!
    One agency told me that as there was no police record of the incident they could do nothing!!!
    I mean what where they looking for? Did they expect that sergeant to witre down “i am corrupt” and then file it in a folder waiting to be discovered???

    I think the corruption in the police force is endemic and systemic in the UK police force and interestingly that that corruption starts at the top and permeates down and not the other way round as one would expect!

    As for CCTV… my country has the most cctv cameras of any country anywhere!
    The authorities always spout the same mantra, “If you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear!”
    I say, “If i’ve done nothing wrong then you have NO RIGHT watching me”

    Corrupt abusive police depts and Gov agencies have no right to watch me as i go about my lawful business, (not that i have a business anymore 🙁 )
    It is reckoned that the average brit is caught on cctv just over 300 times each and every day!!

    This cant be right

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