They Shoot Video, Don't They?
Allen Bass, 50, sued Trooper Gerald Dellagicoma and others in 2009, claiming they punched and kicked him multiple times, causing him to urinate on himself, after he complied with their commands to get off his bicycle at Ellis Avenue and Clinton Avenue in Irvington a year earlier.
Bass was charged with various drug offenses that were later dismissed.
It would appear that the drug charges were dismissed when the troopers failed to appear for trial.
The jury in the Bass case found no merit to the allegations that Dellagicoma arrested him without probable cause and subjected him to a malicious prosecution. The jury also found no wrongdoing by the other troopers involved, Christopher Mills and Miguel Holguin.
And what was Bass doing that gave rise to this encounter?
[Bass] was riding his bike July 10, 2008, in Irvington when Dellagicoma and other troopers who were on patrol in the area got out of their patrol cars and ordered him to stop. Bass claimed he laid on the ground chest-down and spread his arms and legs.
Troopers allegedly then punched and kicked him before arresting him. Bass was charged with drug possession, resisting arrest by flight and resisting arrest by force, court documents show.
What makes this special is that in New Jersey, there is a requirement that arose from the racial profiling scandal that rocked the Turnpike, that all encounters with State Troopers be videotaped. The state was kind enough to put cameras in cruisers. Never again would a trooper be falsely accused of profiling a driver just because he was black. (This is known as the "black plus" theory of profiling.)
Except Trooper Dellagicoma didn't turn on his camera. Oops.
Court documents show Dellagicoma, who joined the force in 2001, failed to activate his patrol car camera and was suspended without pay for 30 days, but only served 15 days of that suspension. Records show Dellagicoma was reprimanded several times prior to the incident for the same infraction.
The plan seemed foolproof. Give troopers cameras and require them to use them. If they don't, there must be consequences. And consequences there are.
The videos are often critical to proving allegations of wrongdoing, as well as protecting troopers from false public complaints. But not activating a camera is considered by the State Police to be a minor infraction punishable by a written reprimand and a suspension of only a few days.
Of course, the consequences aren't nearly as severe as the consequences suffered by Allen Bass. Or severe enough to make Trooper Dellagicoma actually turn his camera on. Several times.
The utility of video in revealing what really happens when cop encounters citizen can't be understated, as it has fundamentally changed our understanding and appreciation of the ugliness on the street. Before, we relied on the sanitized, fantastical descriptions given by police officers on the witness stand, where they never uttered a mean word and were invariably professional and courteous in every interaction. It wasn't their fault that the perp ended up with a gun-shaped bruise across his left cheek. He must have attacked the gun with his face. It can happen, you know.
But to ignore the hitch, that the cop may have the unfettered ability to record the encounter and, for whatever reasons ("Gee, I forgot," testified Officer Smith), failed to do so, is an untenable problem. The efficacy of video depends on its actually being used, in every instance and including the entire encounter. Anything less reduces it to a game, where the police make the rules, and the rules will not be good for the other side.
The only way an incentive system works is to make the cost of noncompliance greater than the cost of compliance. Apparently, a written reprimand and a few days suspension doesn't cut it. And when it happens repeatedly, it is clearly failing to serve as a deterrent. That's not good enough.
It's not Allen Bass' fault that the encounter with troopers wasn't recorded. People aren't ready, as they ride their bike down the road, to record a chance encounter with police. Maybe they should be, but most of us go through our daily routines without need to be capable of videotaping a shocking encounter at any moment.
That the troopers failed to do so is inexcusable, and reflects a failure of both the concept and the execution. If there is a rule that every encounter must be captured on video, then there must be muscle behind the rule that makes the failure to do so count. And when a cop refuses to follow rules repeatedly, he's telling you that you made a bad decision as to who is sufficiently trustworthy to wear a shield and carry a gun.
Video is a great thing. But only if it's used. And when the person you entrust to use it happens also to be the sort of person inclined to beat people for fun, then having a video rule probably isn't sufficient to address your problems.