21st Century Policing: You Can’t Handle The Truth

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issues its interim report.  If you’re not the sort of person to get invited to serve on a President’s Task Force, because you’re not official enough to make the cut, chances are you won’t make it past its self-congratulatory opening, where official people thank other official people for being very official.

As with any document prepared by officials, it’s jargon-filled and skimpy on substance.  No doubt academics will parse the interim report for its deep meaning, though few will ask themselves why it has to be parsed. Couldn’t it just say what it means?

Yet, there is some meaning to be found in the weeds.  The report, coming on the heels of Ferguson, offers a heady mandate:

Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services.

The mission of the task force was to examine how to foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect and to make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.

Well, sure. Trust is good.  But feel-good ideals tell us little about how that’s to be accomplished, particularly when the other purpose is to “promote effective crime reduction.”  The report raises the conflict between cops doing their job and people trusting cops doing their job.  One of the most critical components of  trust is transparency, that people believe that the police are serving and protecting, rather than maiming and pillaging.  And the most notable mechanism for transparency is video, seeing the reality on the street rather than being fed the story the police want us to believe.

So what does the report have to say about public access to video that would reveal the truth?

3.4 RECOMMENDATION: Federal, state, local, and tribal legislative bodies should be encouraged to update public record laws.

The quickly evolving nature of new technologies that collect video, audio, information, and biometric data on members of the community can cause unforeseen consequences. Public record laws, which allow public access to information held by government agencies, including law enforcement, should be modified to protect the privacy of the individuals whose records they hold and to maintain the trust of the community.

While protecting the privacy of individuals is certainly an important issue and a thorny problem, it’s curious that the report puts this up front.  Ordinarily, one might expect a report to start with the importance of recording police interactions and the necessity of making them available to the public so that the public can see what happened when controversy arises.

Only after making transparency the dominant theme would they raise limitations on transparency.  Sure, there is a need for limitations, but not until after the primacy of transparency is established.  But then, this isn’t about truth, but trust.

Issues such as the accessibility of video captured through dashboard or body-worn cameras are especially complex. So too are the officer use of force events that will be captured by video camera systems and then broadcast by local media outlets. Use of force, even when lawful and appropriate, can negatively influence public perception and trust of police. Sean Smoot, task force member, addressed this by recalling the shooting of a Flagstaff, Arizona, police officer whose death was recorded by his BWC. Responding to public record requests by local media, the police department released the graphic footage, which was then shown on local TV and also on YouTube. This illustration also raises questions concerning the recording of police interactions with minors and the appropriateness of releasing those videos for public view given their inability to give informed consent for distribution.

Videos of cops using force are “especially complex,” and can “negatively influence public perception and trust of police.”  The President’s Task Force calls for a change to open records laws to allow the police to refuse to disclose such video, because it might cause the public to lose faith in our police.  It’s all about trust.

The concept behind this recommendation seems fairly straightforward. If the public sees the police in action, they won’t trust the cops.  Notably, one of the people who gave testimony to the Task Force, but whose anecdote isn’t included, like that of Sean Michael Smoot, Director and Chief Counsel, Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois, was Michael Bell, retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, whose son was executed by Kenosha cops.

On Nov 9th 2004, my oldest son, returning home from a night out with friends, parked a car in front of his own home and a police officer drove up behind him. The officer made accusations without cause. Squad car dash-cam video shows the officer aggressively grabbing Michael, moving him off-camera and ordering a field sobriety test. Michael refuses, stating, “I know my rights,” and two officers commence kicking, punching and tasing to arrest. With four officers now on the scene, and while Michael is held from behind in a bear hug, an officer mistakenly believes Michael has his gun and without confirmation, a 2nd officer places his gun directly to Michael’s head, firing a deadly shot while Michael’s mother and sister watch from 10 feet away. There were nine eye witnesses (5 civilian and 4 police).

Down the line, the killing was found “justified.”  Bell expressed the need for recording devices to “capture the data at the time of death.”

The mission of the task force was to examine how to foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect . . ..

The trick is to conceal the truth and put on a play. That, according to the President’s Task Force, is what 21st Century Policing is all about.

H/T Mike Paar on Michael Bell’s Testimony

5 thoughts on “21st Century Policing: You Can’t Handle The Truth

  1. ExCop-LawStudent

    Under the Texas Open Records law, if video was captured by police, it is a public record open to release, by default. The department has to show that it meets an exception to block its release, and must request an opinion from the Attorney General within 10 days if it does not wish to release the footage.

    I have a real difficult time understanding why the public would accept anything less.

  2. Jack Colwell

    For my comment I would like to invite readers to consider the historical example of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who practiced during the 1800’s. Semmelweis discovered that doctors of his day were cycling disease from the morgue, back to new maternity patients, on unwashed hands. Let’s say the people then had choices similar to the ones we have today.
    1) They could leverage technology to put videos machines on each doctor. This would provide evidence the transfer of disease happened. Of course the patients would loose all privacy and it would not actually stop the transfer of disease. Nonetheless, this way more doctors could be held accountable.
    2) They could leverage technology to assure the doctors showed up with clean hands. No transfer of disease, no sacrifice of privacy.
    But what if no one knew there was a second choice? They would call for the video.=

    1. SHG Post author

      Your example employs the basic logical fallacies of false equivalencies, inductive reasoning and, of course, the dreaded anecdote, always one of the worst possibly mechanisms for attempting to make a point. The general rule should be transparency, which is subsequently limited in specific situations (like patient privacy) to the extent necessary.

      Consider this: Cop kills homeless man on street, claiming he went for his gun. Cop has body cam, which shows equivocal video. Chief announces he won’t release the video because of patient privacy and it won’t prevent the killing anyway. Does this response work for you?

  3. Jack Colwell

    Frequently people find an analogy helpful, particularly when presenting a new paradigm around an emotionally charged topic.  I apologize for my ambiguity and will attempt to be explicit.
    I am all for video, I was attempting to point out through analogy, it’s inherent weaknesses.  Video is not a panacea for what ails policing and communities.
    I believe there is another alternative.  This alternative would leverage technology to instill a profound level of transparency and accountability in policing, helping the profession to drastically improve.  It would also tend to eliminate problematic behavior by exposing and correcting the problematic attitudes that proceed problematic behavior.  
    While this use of technology would not be cheap, it would be much less expensive, and much more effective, than a traditional consent decree. 
    I will not attempt to use this forum to promote my ideas for improving policing.  My initial comment was designed to prime the thinking of people on this forum who are obviously much more intelligent than me.
    Mr. Greenfield has my e-mail and can contact me if he wishes to hear more about this concept.
    Thank you for your forbearance.

    1. SHG Post author

      Analogies are fine, but only to the extent they work. Yours didn’t accomplish your goal. That said, you can’t write this without explanation:

      This alternative would leverage technology to instill a profound level of transparency and accountability in policing…

      So what is this technology that can be so “leveraged”? We all agree that cameras aren’t a panacea, and that they have a variety of problems, but most of us nonetheless think the transparency far exceeds their negatives. If you have a better idea, I, for one, would very much love to hear it.

Comments are closed.