But For Video That Almost Wasn’t

What were the chances that the nice young man driving the Uber car would be a lawyer? Remarkably good, actually, given that not every new lawyer can get a job as assistant manager of Dairy Queen. After all, they have to earn money to pay off student loans somehow, right?

And that minor detail, that the driver was also a lawyer, explains two things. First, why Jesse Bright wasn’t so easily put off filming the encounter after a cop falsely told him it was against the law. Second, how others can see the manipulative techniques commonly used by cops to “dissuade” people from the exercise of rights under threat of arrest, if not a beating, for not doing what they’re told.

There are provocateurs* who deliberately test police by taking video in places the police invariably tend to deem “sensitive,” such as outside police stations, for the express purpose of “testing” whether cops will try to interfere or threaten them, demand identification or take them into custody. The difference is that these people are both painfully aware of the applicable law and fully prepared to endure the improper consequences of their choice.

Jesse Bright was just a guy driving an Uber. He wasn’t trying to be a hero, to test the police, to provoke cops into doing something stupid and embarrasssing on video. He didn’t seek out the opportunity to go viral. It just happened that way.

Officer: Hey bud, turn that off, OK?
Driver: No, I’ll keep recording. Thank you. It’s my right.
Officer: Don’t record me. You got me?
Driver: Look, you’re a police officer on duty. I can record you.
Officer walks to driver’s side of vehicle
Officer: Be careful because there is a new law. Turn it off or I’ll take you to jail.
Driver: For recording you? What is the law?
Officer: Step out of the car.
Driver: What are you arresting me for? I’m sitting here in my car. I’m just recording in case anything happens. I’m surrounded by five police officers.
Officer:  You’re being a jerk.
Driver: I’m scared right now. I’m not being a jerk. I’m recording in case anything happens.
Officer: You better hope we don’t find something in your car?
Driver: You’re not searching my car?
Officer: I’m going to search your car.
Driver: You’re not searching my car.
Officer calls for K-9 unit
Driver:  Bring the K-9s. I don’t care. I know my rights.
Officer: I hope so. I know what the law is.
Driver: I know the law. I’m an attorney, so I would hope I know what the law is.
Officer: And an Uber driver?

Aside from their disbelief that Bright was a lawyer, they ignored his refusal to consent to a search.

Unfortunately, the officers searched Bright’s car and his person anyway, finding nothing and eventually letting both him and his passenger go on their way. But Bright tells WECT his constitutional rights were violated, which appears to be confirmed by statements from senior officers.

A spokesman with the Wilmington PD confirmed to WECT that no “new law” prohibiting the recording of police in public exists, and that the department does not instruct its officers to tell citizens that it is illegal to record them.

That the department, after the fact, confirmed the right to record police interactions and has, in light of this, “instructed” officers to allow people to record interactions is nice enough, but unavailing. Had the driver been someone less knowledgeable, or less willing to risk any number of adverse outcomes, from arrest to a beating, and either ceased recording as a result of the cop’s threats or responded in a way that gave rise to the use of violence against him, which would invariably be accompanied by an arrest for an amorphous offense such as resisting arrest, there would be nothing to document what transpired.

While the video may lack the drama of the many revealing violence, it demonstrates the means by which normal people are coerced by lies and threats to relinquish their rights, to forego the opportunity to show how actual police conduct on the street happens. Instead, judges are given a sanitized version, where threats are converted to kindly requests, where refusal to consent morphs into willing compliance. Without video, a few choice words in a courtroom changes a flagrant impropriety into a banal traffic stop and police officers just doing their job, protecting and serving.

What may not be apparent from the video, due solely to Bright remaining calm and composed, is the possibilities running through his head of what might happen to him as a consequence of his being noncompliant. As a lawyer, an arrest could have enormous consequences. As a human being, the infliction of pain, or worse, was going to hurt. The pressure to do as the cop demanded regardless of what his “rights” may have been was enormous.

The phenomenon known as “submission to the shield,” the reaction of complying with police demands, no matter how wrong they may be, is an enormously powerful motivator. Bright wasn’t driving an Uber to become a youtube hero. Indeed, it’s unlikely that a young lawyer really wants the internet to associate his name in perpetuity with driving an Uber. It’s not exactly the best thing he could do to establish his reputation.

For Bright, the “smart” thing to do would have been to comply, to stop recording even though he knew the cop was lying, to do as he was told to avoid the possibility that his driving time would have been significantly curtailed, whether because he was in custody or a hospital. Why take the risk?

But without banal videos like this, particularly given the utter ordinariness of the cop lying about the law, threatening arrest if not worse, violating constitutional rights with such routine disregard, there would be no way to challenge the officer’s version of what occurred.

The rule, taught to every lawyer, is to “comply now, grieve later.” Without this video, there would be little to grieve about. The cop would have told his story, just another routine lie, to the prosecutor and court, and the judge would shrug and accept the cop’s version as credible, because that’s what judges do. Absent evidence, absent video, this never happened the way it happened, and no one would have ever known or believed.

*While there are issues arising with “provocateurs,” who tend to wrap themselves in a self-righteousness bordering on a messiah complex, they nonetheless serve the purpose of providing police with the opportunity to engage in impropriety. They put themselves at risk to serve a laudable purpose, even if they reflect some disturbing psychological attitudes.

17 comments on “But For Video That Almost Wasn’t

  1. Austin Texas piñata

    I’m surprised that Sgt. Ken Becker is still employed by the WPD. With that one video recorded traffic stop he destroyed any shred of his credibility. The value of his testimony in court is now near zero and his usefulness to the department is probably only as a bad example.

    The same notoriety should attach to the New Hanover deputy who verified Sgt. Becker’s lie on the video. I see that the deputy was ‘counseled’ but how does that restore his integrity? Both are tainted now.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve jumped to an unwarranted conclusion, that he destroyed any shred of credibility. Cops lie all the time, and it’s a well-recognized and lawfully accepted weapon in the police arsenal. Just another day serving and protecting.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        “Destroys” is obviously much too strong a word; unwarranted deference is repeatedly and regularly shown to cops.

        Still, if I were a juror, and the credibility of this cop was an issue, and the defense attorney had somehow magically convinced the court to allow this tape to be shown, I would explain to the rest of the jurors that I found it disturbing that the lies were easy, habitual, and not uttered in service to the cause of justice.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’ve never crossed an undercover, whose life depended on skillful lying. They’ve got this covered.

          1. Robert D

            I have led a sheltered life. How would the lies of an undercover cop cover the lies of a uinformed patrol officer?

  2. Turk

    Well, one thing is for sure, he has the stones to stand in the well of the courtroom and stand up to authority when appropriate, if he were able to get such a job.

    1. SHG Post author

      As it turns out, this reflects the qualities that one would want in their lawyer, calm under pressure and the guts to stand firm. This speaks very well of him as a lawyer.

  3. John Barleycorn

    The only thing that could have made this routine contact better, seeing as how it didn’t go down in a DQ parking lot. Would have been the sound of the unfasining of velcro as he reached into his wallet to produce his lawyer badge after saying:

    “I am attorney, so I hope I know the law. Do you want to see my BAR card?”

    Oh well….

    1. John Barleycorn

      P.S. All he needs is a good watch. Uber riders never take lawyer/drivers seriously if they don’t have a good watch on when handing out their busisness cards at the end of a fare.

  4. unter_driver

    The sheriff’s department said in a statement that “not only does the Sheriff agree that it is legal to record encounters, he invites citizens to do so.” The WPD’s chief of police said pretty much the same thing.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, they did. It said that in the linked article. And your point would be what? Announcing after the fact that the cops were wrong in what way would have made a beating given at the time less painful?

      1. unter_driver

        The two individuals went beyond merely acknowledging that the officer was wrong but also pointed out that recording is a good thing for all concerned. This is a healthy attitude IMO.

  5. Matthew S Wideman

    Kudos to the Uber driver/attorney. I too have had some tense conversations with the police while being pulled over. I own rental property in economically disaffected areas, so encounters with the police happen regularly. I am shocked at how little law the police actually know. Everytime I hear from a cop, “MO Law says this…..”. I always say,”where did you hear that one from….Do you want to look up the statue while we are talking”? Their idea of law usually allows them to do whatever they want….While filing no paperwork.
    I am always shocked at how Police are allowed to be threatening and break the law so blatantly. It’s like the best-worst kept secret.

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