As video began emerging of police encounters, some embraced it as the solution, the thing that would answer all questions, solve all problems, fix everything. Others warned that it was a good thing, but hardly the solution. A little thought, and the issues with video became, well, apparent. From missing video, to doctored video, to incomplete video, to distorted video, problems were manifest.
In the New York Times, police law prof Seth Stoughten did a demonstration of why, sometimes, your eyes do deceive when there is a video that appears to answer questions but really doesn’t. His point wasn’t that video was unhelpful or a bad thing, but that the unsophisticated reliance on video, the view that video is the solution, fails to grasp that it’s not without flaws.
Tim Cushing at Techdirt explains how the police have figured this out as well, and are now busy exploiting the flaws.
Officers are actors and directors in their own scenes. Even when performances are captured by bystanders and their cell phones, there’s still plenty of “drama.” Multiple cops swarm the same suspect, blocking the body from view. Officers shout “Stop resisting!” even when subjects are prone with hands behind their back and under the weight of four or five cops. This allows officers to deliver extra amounts of force, instantly justified by the repeated shouts about resistance.
This scenario has played out again. Footage captured by police body cameras appears to show a tough, physical struggle to subdue a suspect. Shouts of “stop resisting” continue throughout the recording. The up-close-and-personal body cam footage gives every appearance that officers are wrestling with a highly-combative suspect. But footage captured by another camera shows an entirely different scenario.
Remember Marcus Jeter? Or maybe Derrick Price?
Tim quoted the ACLU’s Jay Stanley’s explanation of how different views yielded different perceptions:
It’s hard to imagine what more a suspect could do to avoid being beaten by the police. Derrick Price not only puts his hands high in the air, he then proceeds to lie spread-eagle on the pavement before any of the Marion County sheriff’s deputies reach him. And yet the deputies beat him. What appears to be taking place in this video (as in many others, including the granddaddy of them all, the Rodney King video) is that police officers, angry at a suspect for fleeing (and perhaps disobeying previous orders to stop), have taken it upon themselves to punish the suspect for that disobedience.
Compare that to the “official” footage (which starts at 1:42 in the video above) captured by the officer’s body camera. (There’s a side-by-side comparison of the footage available here.)
[T]he difference between the two videos is… a result of intentional manipulation by the officers beating Price, who repeatedly yell “stop resisting!” as they kick and punch his unmoving body. And the body camera never properly captures the beating of Price, actually facing fully away from the action at some points. It is hard to tell how intentional this was on the part of the officer wearing the camera, but it’s easy to imagine that the officer knew that what his colleagues were doing was not acceptable, and intentionally sought to avoid videotaping them.
To the extent that a camera fortuitously provides a view of what transpired that serves to illuminate what happened, that’s great. But as the police get used to having body cams, dash cams, and figure out more sophisticated ways to manipulate what appears, it’s not so great.
The very same impact of having visuals that has made it impossible for any sane person to doubt that police can, and do, beat people for no good reason, will clear police of wrongdoing. And sometimes, they will deserve to be cleared, because there was no wrongdoing. And other times, it will be a lie, a manipulation of the camera, a deception perpetrated to enjoy the benefits of video that conceals the reality of misconduct.
From this, Tim observed:
The devices that were supposed to result in better policing are becoming complicit in their abusive behavior. Stanley notes the camera was turned on far too late (after the officers had already swarmed the suspect) and turned off far too early (before the suspect was actually in custody). If this had been the only recording available, “our word against yours” would have been completely unassailable. After all, the police department had footage of a highly-physical struggle with a combative suspect. Without the footage captured by an impartial surveillance cam, everything about the arrest would have appeared justified.
Video has gotten us over the hump that this happens. No [ableist slur] judge can opine that it’s not credible that a cop would beat a suspect for no good reason, as they had before. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether the police did wrong in this particular case.
Does this mean that we need “impartial” surveillance everywhere? It would, of course, serve as a counterbalance to police body cam manipulation, but then, it would also mean we live in a world of constant surveillance. That brings an entirely different set of problems to the fore.
The takeaways are many, and fairly clear. Video is good, but hardly perfect and occasionally harmful. Every new solution carries with it a new risk of abuse and manipulation, even if it takes a couple of years to figure out how to accomplish manipulation or to recognize why the latest, greatest solution isn’t quite as great as we thought.
But the overarching takeaway is that there is rarely, if every, a “solution.” Not to video. Not to beatings or killings. Not to lying. Not to law. It’s understandable that people continually ask, when problems to new approaches are raised, “so if that’s not good enough, then what is? What’s the solution?” There isn’t always a solution.
Ultimately, there is not only no solution, but not even agreement on the least harmful option. This offends children and fools, because they view the world through a simple lens where every problem must have a solution. Sadly, no, every problem does not, or at least not a solution that doesn’t require massive change that would be untenable, and likely still not a solution as I’ve defined.
To not have one’s head explode is to expect tolerance for ambiguity. You have to accept the proposition that there are dilemmas out there that defy solution. People don’t like ambiguity. They want clarity. They want answers.
You can’t always get what you want.
This is why the need for critical scrutiny never quite ends, why we don’t reach that “Aha” moment that Oprah watchers so adore. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to find answers to all that ails us, but that our wanting answers doesn’t mean they exist. They usually don’t. And “solutions” that seem great often turn out to be anything but solutions.