The Limits of Cameras

One question that keeps poking its ugly head through the mist of obfuscation in Ferguson, Missouri, is why the police have the full panoply of weapons for an invasion of Fallujah, but there was no camera to be had when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown down in the street.  So many questions might have been answered, quickly and cleanly, if only a neutral record existed.

But it didn’t. No body cam. No dash cam. No cameras to be had.

Cameras are the answer, many have said.  And they may well have been, in this instance. Unless, of course, something went “wrong.”  Our reliance on extrinsic solutions, particularly those tech tools that, in theory, would facilitate the desired clarity, is well-placed only to the extent two things occur: the tech works, and humans don’t get in the way.

Via Jonathan Turley,

In New Orleans, Armand Bennet, 26, was shot in the forehead during a traffic stop by New Orleans police officer Lisa Lewis. However, the police department did not reveal until much later that Lewis turned off her body camera just before shooting Bennett. Bennett survived and has now been charged under prior warrants for his arrest. It also reviewed that Lewis had had a prior run in with Bennet who escaped about a week earlier.

Officer Lewis’ camera was off.  The obvious reaction is that she turned it off to conceal the fact that she was about to plug Bennet in the forehead in a moment, and had the presence to do so without creating a conclusive record.  But we easily see that because of what happened afterward.  Post hoc rationalizations are easily deconstructed.

Perhaps she turned it off when she thought the confrontation was over. Perhaps she turned it off by accident. Perhaps she desperately wishes now she had kept it on, to prove Bennet took some action to justify her shooting him in the forehead.  Or, as appears most likely, perhaps she turned it off so that there would be no video of what she was about to do.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas called the late disclosures on the shooting simply a “snafu.”

I don’t think Serpas understands what “snafu” means, but at least it’s something we can all agree on. Situation normal; all fucked up.  It’s not a good thing for the cops.

With a slew of caveats, the use of cameras, both body and dash, would be a game changer.  Witness testimony is often fraught with error, whether because of truth or perception impairment.  Then again, what is depicted in video is often far more subject to challenge and interpretation than many appreciate.  This is particularly true when a video is used against a cop.  Who you gonna believe, the cop or your lying eyes?

This isn’t to suggest that cameras can’t be a critical tool in ascertaining the truth of what happened.  They certainly can, but only to the extent they show everything that needs to be seen, to provide not only the specific detail, but the surrounding context.

And the cameras work. And the video isn’t deleted. And the video isn’t edited. And the video isn’t turned off. And the video isn’t corrupted. And whatever else can happen to a bit of tech, like the blue screen of death.  And then there are camera angles, lighting, sound, etc.  Any piece of the puzzle lost and the video becomes the subject of controversy instead of clarity.

In his very thorough parsing of the use of cameras as tools, Radley Balko  made the point that yelling “cameras” isn’t sufficient to address the perpetually complex issue of ascertaining what really happened.

There’s no question that, had the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department mandated that its officers wear body cameras, use dashboard cameras or both, there would be far fewer mysteries about the events leading up to the shooting of Michael Brown. The department apparently had these cameras; it just hadn’t gotten around to using them.

But simply mandating that the cameras be used isn’t enough…

Without a fully conceived policy mandating how police cameras are used, backed up by sanctions like the missing video presumption, the value of cameras as a tool is only as good as the police allow them to be.

But even so, concepts like the missing video presumption are legalistic.  As Ferguson has demonstrated, most notably with the convenience store video, legal answers mean little to the public. They don’t grasp them, and more importantly, they don’t buy them. The public is going to believe whatever confirms their bias, no matter how irrational.  We live in the age where passion trumps reason, and truth becomes whatever anybody screams it is.

Had there been a video of Police Officer Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown down in the street, it might have resolved the fury that has rightfully grown out of this killing.  But I doubt it.  Too many have created a fantasy in their heads about what happened, based solely on their love of cops, hatred of blacks, demand for order at the expense of another human being’s life.

Seeing isn’t believing.  Believing is seeing.  Cameras should change that, but they don’t.  And that’s only if and when they work, work well, and work in a perfect world.  We don’t live in that perfect world, even good tools in the battle for reality suffer the indignity of being subject to human frailties.  So bring in the cameras, but don’t expect them to be the end of the problem.   There will always be a “snafu.”

11 comments on “The Limits of Cameras

  1. Charles B. "Brad" Frye

    I agree that cameras should be part of a solution to detecting law enforcement misdeeds and substantiating the facts of “good stops.” But, there is a more basic problem that cameras can’t fix. Our law enforcement officers apparently are not, generally, very good at their jobs.

    We’ve been reading a lot lately about the “militarization” of our local police. This concept has to do with local agencies receiving expensive inappropriate (for their mission) equipment along with more sophisticated weapons and crowd control systems. After thinking about it, it’s clear that comparing our local law enforcement agencies to our military is insulting to our military. I wouldn’t mind if our local agencies were more “militarized” if it meant that they were in better physical shape and better trained and lead. What bothers me most is that most local officers do not have the physical ability or training to subdue a suspect without escalating the use of force to unacceptable levels. Most of them can’t run, can’t fight effectively, and have to rely on a weapon and assistance to take down a suspect. (Let’s not talk about marksmanship; it’s a lost art among the police.)
    Whether it’s a TASER, a baton, or a firearm (or three or four officers on one suspect), example after example demonstrates that there is a serious lack of training in hand-to-hand combat and even more lacking in physical fitness levels. Instead of walking around in BDUs with semi-autos strapped to their hip, or riding around in an MRAP with a SAW, perhaps the time and money would be better spent on physical fitness routines and personal combat techniques. We might end up with fewer injured citizens and law enforcement officers that way.

    1. SHG Post author

      Cameras. Focus (forgive the pun) on cameras, not every conceivable tangent relating to any other law enforcement issue under the sun.

  2. RJP

    Well done.

    I tend to favor cameras, in spite of my distrust of police to operate them properly, because I believe cops want them to work. In a jurisdiction where I practiced for several years, many of the cops resisted cameras right up to the point when the department got lapel cams for virtually everyone. After that, most (if not all) were grateful for the innovation. In one case, a cop told me he hadn’t seen a guy drop a gun until he went back and watched the video. Yet in the same case, the video helped vindicate the defendant they charged because his identity was so unclear (and unprovable) to the prosecutor.

    “Procedural rules ought to be designed to maximize the chance that the outcome of the trial will be a verdict that is based on what truly occurred.” — Justice Brennan

    1. Stan

      Did you find any evidence to suggest that lapel cameras moderated behavior on both sides of the camera? I would speculate that this might be the case, but it would be interesting if there was any emperical evidence one way or the other.

      1. RJP

        It’s impossible to say anything other than the type of anecdotal evidence I shared above. Having talked to clients before use of the cameras became widespread, I know that many people already believed that all police used cameras, and most of them were horrified when they found out that their incidents were not recorded.

        Cameras have the same effect on deterring crime as criminal laws and padlocks.

        1. SHG Post author

          Rialto, Calfornia:

          In the first year after the cameras’ introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%.

          It doesn’t mean it will stay that way, or that things won’t devolve back to the bad old days, but it’s a win/win for now.

  3. Jake DiMare

    There’s a type of switch which can be engaged in the absence of a magnetic field. Attached to a camera which is sighted down the barrel (these also already exist) the problem of cops forgetting ‘turn it on’/remembering to ‘turn it off’ goes away. Attach it to a network of cameras via bluetooth (also already exits) on their vehicle, lapel, stun gun, mace, kubaton, and club and each officer will have a multi-camera shoot of any interaction rising above the level of fisticuffs.

    Hey, this reminds me of another nifty piece of technology: The ‘smart gun’. Making this a requirement for LEO would take away the ‘well he was going for my gun so I had to kill him’ argument.

    Of course, if police brutality and tyranny was considered a problem with (and not a feature of) law enforcement, it would probably be solved already.

    1. SHG Post author

      And yet, “37 out of 69 cameras were broken that day, the police reported. Chief Smith said, ‘It can happen.'”

  4. Pingback: Broken Windows, From the My Little Pony Perspective | Simple Justice

  5. Pingback: Why No Camera? | Simple Justice

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    year and am {nervous|anxious|worried|concerned} about switching
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    Is there a way I can {transfer|import} all my wordpress {content|posts} into it?
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    {Terrific|Great|Wonderful} {article|work}! {This is|That is}
    {the type of|the kind of} {information|info} {that are meant to|that are supposed to|that
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    {Disgrace|Shame} on {the {seek|search} engines|Google} for {now not|not|no longer} positioning this {post|submit|publish|put up} {upper|higher}!
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    {all|every one} {can|be able to|be capable of} {easily|without difficulty|effortlessly|simply}
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    {Hi|Hello} there, {I found|I discovered} your {blog|website|web site|site} {by means of|via|by the use
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    {I have|I’ve} bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
    {Hello|Hi} there, {simply|just} {turned into|became|was|become|changed into}
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    Google, {and found|and located} that {it is|it’s} {really|truly} informative.

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    {Is this|Is that this} a paid {subject|topic|subject matter|theme} or did
    you {customize|modify} it {yourself|your self}? {Either way|Anyway} {stay|keep} up the {nice|excellent} {quality|high quality}
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