Sheriff’s deputies in Clark County, Ohio, have been given dispensation to wear “pocket cameras” on the job. Not because someone decided it was a good idea for them to video their interactions with member of the public, which is not only a perfectly fine thing to do, but one that has been embraced by other department. According to the Dayton Daily News :
Clark County Sheriff’s deputies are wearing pocket cameras that record their work to help their cases and to protect themselves against accusations of misconduct.
“Every call we go on, someone’s going to record us,” Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said. “We have that same technology.”
Deputies are not required to wear the cameras but can purchase them independently or with their uniform allowance.
So that’s how it’s going to be, if we record them, they record us. Tit for tat. Fight fire with fire. So nobody in Dayton will be arrested or hassled for videotaping police anymore? What’s wrong with that?
Kelly said that law enforcement can use the cameras to their benefit if there are false allegations.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Kelly said.
What Elliott records with his camera can be used for evidence.
“If I feel there are evidentiary purposes, I will submit it to the courts,” said Elliott, who has worn his for about a year.
Of course, that’s not how it worked out when Rory Bruce was tried, but it reveals the one-way street attitude that video is going through on its way to maturity. When the cops want to use it, because it benefits them, it’s perfect. A picture is worth a thousand words. When it reflects poorly on cops, it never tells the full story and should be completely disregarded.
But what the Clark County Sheriff’s office is doing shows the danger of playing this game. Inexplicably, police haven’t quite gotten the memo that they are rather unique public employees. They aren’t let loose on the streets with guns and shields because they are just a bunch of cool guys, but because they hold a special authority that society has entrusted to them to protect and serve.
When they take the oath and strap on the Sam Browne body armor, they do with the knowledge that they are no longer acting as ordinary people who just happen to be entitled to seize other ordinary people by pointing a gun at their head. Their authority comes from the job, from the People, who put up the money for their uniform allowance.
Are there rules for the use of pocket cameras in Clark County? Who decides when the camera gets turned on? Must deputies preserve what the camera sees, whether it’s good for them or not? Does Gene Kelly, the Sheriff, get to decide what’s of “evidentiary value” and what’s not? Who preserves the integrity of the video? On whose computer does it get downloaded? Or deleted? Or altered?
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that’s true whether the picture is accurate or modified to show something false. And if the picture shows a cop doing something bad, then the lack of a picture is worth even more words, the words of argument that there is no proof of a beating, a false arrest, a killing.
Members of the Clark County Sheriff’s office are not permitted to have original copies of the digital media evidence after their shifts, according to digital media evidence policies for the office.
And what happens to the deputies if they do? Who decides what gets uploaded after a shift? Is this intended to prevent a deputy from screwing with videos at home or uploading embarrassing videos on Youtube of their interactions on the job?
“They can be used to protect deputies and civilians to be sure everything is safe and appropriate,” Hunt said.
Officials believe that the cameras will be helpful in protecting themselves and the community.
“I think there will be a time when everyone carries one,” said Kelly.
There probably isn’t anyone who disagrees with this, though its hardly as simple as Kelly would have it. We’re still a ways off from figuring out how video will best serve “deputies and civilians,” ignoring, of course, that deputies are civilians, but I hesitate to be overly critical of Ben Hunt, human resources and labor relations administrator at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, for his confusion. It’s got Tale of Two Cities potential, best and worst at the same time.
But the set up of deputies carrying personal video to offset the public having video of their own smacks of a deeply entrenched “us” versus “them” problem, and provides all sorts of opportunity for facile abuse. Cops want to video their interactions for everyone’s benefit? Cool. But then it has to be done right, used from the initiation of all interactions and remain on until the bitter end, preserved in a manner that secures it from any alteration and available to everyone, cop or non-cop alike, should it be needed.
Why isn’t the public required to do so if that’s what you demand of cops? Because you are cops, whose function is to protect and serve at the behest of the public. This is the life you chose and the obligation that goes with it.