The ubiquitous video cameras, whether on lamp posts, concrete walls or cellphones of all “G”s, is beginning to make a dent, or so says Jim Pasco, head of the Fraternal Order of Police. When Radley Balko first interviewed him, Pasco was on the offensive:
“Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.”
Needless to say, Pasco’s argument didn’t nip it in the bud. The claim that videotaping cops violated their rights was the source of some amusement and much ridicule. The public disagreed. Demonstrating his ability to shift direction as the wind blows, Pasco moved on to Plan B :
“The proliferation of cheap video equipment is presenting a whole new dynamic for law enforcement,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union. “It has had a chilling effect on some officers who are now afraid to act for fear of retribution by video. This has become a serious safety issue. I’m afraid something terrible will happen.”
Tried and true, the appeal to fear is an implicit threat that has long served our boys in blue well. Along with its corollaries (If you don’t appreciate cops, the next time you’re in trouble call a criminal.), this puts the screws to the good citizens by leaving the impression that when they need a police officer to save them with an immediate response, the officer may hesitate for fear of being videoed and the good citizen may, well, you get the picture.
This is an old chestnut that has proven useful time and again in the battle for respect and compliance. As much as we may have lingering doubts about the police, we still realize that we need them and they serve a vital function in society. And indeed, they do. We need the police to do their job to protect and serve. We need to support the police in doing their job. We similarly need to keep them honest in the performance of their duties.
As the first comment to Radley’s post states, fear of “retribution by video” isn’t a bug, but a feature. Pasco’s suggestion that the cops can’t handle the idea that their actions will be observed and judged is nonsense. His suggestion that they won’t do their duty for fear of being second-guessed is their desperation play. This isn’t an all-or-nothing choice, where we are constrained to accept police abuse and misconduct, or suffer no protection at all.
It’s telling that Jim Pasco has gone from the offensive to the defensive on this issue. The rhetoric of rights has been rejected by the public, that police officers should be entitled to indulge their impulses without fear of scrutiny. The notion that they have a right to be free of public oversight and, when appropriate, approbation, has been seen as nonsense. They act on behalf of the government, and their authority belongs not to them personally, but to all of us. If they exercise it poorly, they have no right to be shielded from consequences.
The implicit threat that they won’t be there for us when we need them is also nonsense, though one that has worked many times before. The police are well-trained and well-equipped to perform a sworn duty. They know the difference between shooting at an armed suspect and beating a hand-cuffed kid who mouthed off to them. Indeed, as Radley points out,
We want cops second-guessing decisions that are second-guessable. If an abundance of video cameras helps that to happen, all the better.
If the police can’t distinguish the proper performance of their duties from abuse and misconduct, then they have no business being handed a gun and shield. There will be close calls, and they will be subject to exacting scrutiny after the fact, but contrary to Pasco’s claim, no police officer will ever hesitate to act when it comes to protecting himself. The first rule of policing remains unchanged, make it home for dinner.
The pervasiveness of video, combined with the seed of doubt in the minds of police officers when there is good reason to hesitate, gives rise to a corollary to the first rule of policing. Maybe now, the citizen will have a decent chance of making it home for dinner as well. That’s not a bug, but a feature.