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.”