Another Cop Weighs in on Recording Cops

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Over the weekend I linked to an excellent essay from a police officer explaining why good cops have no need to worry about citizen-shot video.

Jonathan Last now points to a less encouraging blog entry on the same topic, from a guy who claims to be a Chicago police officer:

Once again, it falls to the sane who walk among the thin blue line to point out that these provide exactly the same amount of “protection” to officers as our Blue Light Cameras offer to the citizenry – that is to say, “none.” This device is a witness that might provide assistance in the event of a bad beef in Oakland, but we can still count on one hand exactly how many prosecutions have been brought against bad beefers who have lied on sworn affidavits against CPD members.

And you can also can count on one hand the number of times a cop has been prosecuted—or even disciplined—after citizen-shot video showed him to have lied in a police report. Or the number of cops who have been prosecuted for destroying citizen cameras or deleting videos in jurisdictions where such recordings are legal.

And while it may be true that citizens shown to have lied in a sworn complaint against an officer are rarely prosecuted, it’s also true that CPD doesn’t take complaints all that seriously, even after a number of high-profile excessive force incidents in recent years. From an article I wrote a couple years ago:

The most famous incident was footage of an off-duty cop viciously beating a female bartender who refused to continue serving him in 2007. He wasn’t even charged until three months later, after the surveillance video surfaced on the Internet, generating worldwide outrage. There are other examples: six cops beating two men in a bar brawl; a video of a fatal police shooting in a subway station where officer accounts of the incident don’t match the video footage. The department also recently disciplined two officers after a video showed up on the Internet showing a Chicago PD unit posing for a trophy photo with a protester they had apprehended earlier this year at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

This is a police department still under federal investigation for an officer-run torture ring in the 1980s and, more recently, for a major scandal in which officers in the department’s Special Operations Unit—alleged to be made up of the city’s most elite and trusted cops—have been convicted of a variety of crimes, including home robberies, theft, physical abuse and intimidation, and even planning a murder. The “best of the best” unit was disbanded last year.

A 2008 study by University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman found 10,000 complaints filed against Chicago police officers between 2002 and 2004. That’s more than any city in the country, and proportionally it’s 40 percent above the national average. Of those 10,000 complaints, just 19 resulted in significant disciplinary action. In 85 percent of the cases, the complaint was dismissed without even interviewing the accused officer. The study also found that about 5 percent of the department’s 13,500 officers accounted for more than half the complaints.

Yet the Chicago PD recently went to federal court—and won—to prevent the release of the names of 662 officers who had more than 10 citizen complaints filed against them between 2001 and 2006. Even members of the city’s Board of Aldermen aren’t allowed to see the officers’ names.

Now, the police department is working to become even less accountable. Last October, a study from the Chicago Justice Project found that on those rare occasions when Chicago police brass want to fire an officer, the Chicago Police Board—the agency that oversees the department—nearly always overrules them.

Not to mention the petulant reaction from Chicago cops and their union when Officer William Cozzi given prison time after he was caught on tape beating a man handcuffed to a wheelchair.

I should add when I’ve talked about this issue on radio call-in shows, I’ve heard from a lot of cops who take the less hostile, more encouraging position on this issue articulated in that first link. I’ve received lots of email from cops in the same vein. Most who say they’re fine with it say they’re fine with it because they’re good cops, and because citizen video is far more likely to protect them against false accusations than to incriminate them.

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34 Responses to “Another Cop Weighs in on Recording Cops”

  1. #1 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Why don’t they just concede it’s legal across the board and move on to the real crimes?
    You don’t see postmen and firemen worrying about this shit.

  2. #2 |  andyinsdca | 

    It’s the old saw biting the cops in the ass on this one: If you have nothing to hide, what are you worried about?

  3. #3 |  JS | 

    It’s a power thing. They intensely dislike and reject the very idea of them being held accountable in any way. I guess when you get used to being above the law it goes to your head.

  4. #4 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    andyinsdca,

    It makes my really uneasy when somebody nominally in agreement with me reaches for that justification. The “if you have nothing to hide” quote is primarily connected to swine who expect me to forfeit my rights against unreasonable search and seizure in order to forward THEIR pet Crusade.

    I think that one thing we need to keep in mind at all time when we discuss these issues of surveillance and law enforcement is that the absence of ever-present video cameras meant that there was some wiggle room between what people SAID the laws was and what they actually expected to see enforced.

    This smacks of the automatic speed ticket cameras; before them a road could be posted as “Speed Limit 25″, and whether it really WAS “Speed Limit 25″ depended on how much that was going to be enforced. With speed cameras the Speed Limits IS 25, and then we get to confron whether than is really what we want.

    We SAY we believe that police harassment and brutality are bad. I believe it to be true. I hope that the majority of my fellow citizens agree with me. But as the universality of access to video cameras settles into place, we are going to have to deal with a world where we CANNOT say one thing and tolerate another. I THINK this is a good thing. I HOPE this is a good thing. But a small, nasty, part of my mind keeps whispering that all this is doing is throwing sand into the gears of our society … gears that don’t mesh all that well to begin with.

    I hope to hell that that voice is wrong.

  5. #5 |  SJE | 

    Exactly: the fact that you can count on one hand the number of prosecutions of cops is evidence that the system doesnt work, not that cameras are not effective.

    Torturing and killing prisoners is also illegal under the Geneva convention and US law. Despite evidence that hundreds have been tortured, and at least several people have died in US military custody, we have only had two prosecutions against low ranking soldiers. Guess which ones: those clearly shown in photos. What about the others, who ordered and oversaw the torture, or destroyed tapes, aided and abetted? No convictions, and only two on going investigations associated with actual death of a prisoner.

  6. #6 |  Curt | 

    The comments on the CPD blog page are very disturbing. Ratio of about 10:1 against the cameras doesn’t really surprise me. Almost everyone is defending the BART cop saying it was an unfortunate incident and training failure that he shouldn’t have been punished for. Sorry, but that’s not an excusable mistake.

    One guy posts that “we don’t object to discipline if one of ours is caught doing something wrong”. If that was actually true, this discussion would be moot. He also says “if some mope got clobbered in the past, it was because we knew that’s all he was going to get”. That clobbering is suggested as a response to being hit by someone.

    Another guy explains that the camera won’t catch the little clues (that they use to justify beating someone up) like tensing of muscles and clenching fists. That may be true, but the camera also won’t catch the fact that the guys muscles are tensing because you pulled out your baton and started threatening him. He refers to this theoretical person as a “soon-in-the-future offender”. Minority report?

    Overall, the whole tone of the comments is that cops don’t do anything wrong, get screwed by the system while scumbags go free, and deserve privacy and protection from the public more than the public deserves the same from them.

  7. #7 |  Jesse | 

    The cop that made these comments is completely myopic. In his view, the only thing cameras are good for is protecting cops from false citizen allegations. Cops lying on police reports, filing false charges under color of law? Apparently that doesn’t happen, or to the extent that it does, they deserved it.

    This guy intuitively holds himself and his fellow government workers in a caste apart from the rest of us.

  8. #8 |  Curt | 

    @ #2 and @4,

    I like the “nothing to hide” comment mostly as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy. When they complain that “nothing to hide” is a stupid argument for the cameras, they also have to admit that it’s a stupid argument for trying to obliterate 4th amendment rights.

    I agree with the rest of #4′s post and that’s one of the good arguments made on the CPD blog page. To what extent do cameras force them to stick to the letter of a ridiculous law instead of having some discretion?

  9. #9 |  ClubMedSux | 

    Overall, the whole tone of the comments is that cops don’t do anything wrong, get screwed by the system while scumbags go free, and deserve privacy and protection from the public more than the public deserves the same from them.

    That’s about right. I have family members who are cops, friends who are cops and neighbors who are cops. Hell, half of my softball team are cops. For the life of me I just don’t understand this whole “us vs. the world” mentality. I get that it’s a dangerous job and cops need to look out for each other, and this encourages the idea that cops need to stick together. But ultimately it just seems like none of the cops I know are ever willing to look at things from a different perspective. Most people, even if you can’t change their mind, you can at least get them to see somebody else’s point of view. It just seems like my cop friends think that even considering a perspective other than a cop’s is treasonous. I seriously don’t get it.

  10. #10 |  Stephen | 

    Seems like a good way to separate the good cops from the bad. If they don’t like cameras then they are bad cops.

  11. #11 |  Statism: It Sucks » ReasonAndJest.com | 

    [...] Radley Balko: More on why the right to videotape cops needs to be protected [...]

  12. #12 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    There have been a couple of video-that-helped-the-police stories this week.

    One involved a nutty couple at a WAL*MART who ended up getting electroshocked, tackled and arrested for giving a policeman a hard time. The video makes it look like that the couple really was disturbing the peace (in a meaningful sense) before the attempted arrest.

    Another involved a shooting in Sand Francisco where it was not clear that the suspect had a gun (witnesses said he did not). Couple videos showed a gun on the ground (which was picked up and carted off by a third party). Packratt even had to take the story out of his database(!!!).

    Even as a police critic, I sometimes see videos where there is good, even if violent, police work. Nice to see two of them crop up in a week. About a month or two back there was a good fatal shyooting in Texas video. The policeman really gave the suspect a fair chance to put his gun down. It was there on video (with audio).

    On an unrelated note: who saw the Breaking Bad season 4 opener? Not that great, I thought.

  13. #13 |  Frank Hummel | 

    “I linked to an excellent essay from a police officer explaining why good cops have no need to worry about citizen-shot video”

    I think i just read about a cop who is gonna be kicked off the force within the next 6 months.

  14. #14 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    SJE,

    “Torturing and killing prisoners is also illegal under the Geneva convention and US law.” Not speaking to the U.S. law issue, but torturing and killing prisoners is only illegal under the Geneva Convention when they belong to a regular unite (uniforms and command structure) belonging to a nation signatory to the Convention. I bring this up not because I am in favor of torturing prisoners, but because I have listened to this talking point for long enough to be thoroughly tired of it. Neither the Iraqi armed forces nor any terrorist organization is entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, and to my mind insisting that they are means either 1) you are misinformed (which degrades my opinion of your arguments) or 2) you don’t CARE what the facts are (in which case I no longer care about your arguments).

    I am inclined to think that most people fall into category 1, but I HAVE met several category 2′s.

  15. #15 |  EdinMiami | 

    or 3) you are more inclined to respect the intent of the provision and not be steadfastly fixated on legal justifications for torturing human beings…

  16. #16 |  Jake Boone | 

    C.S.P. Schofield,

    This language appears in the text of both the Third Geneva Convention and the Fourth Geneva Convention:

    1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
    (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; [...]

    Iraq ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1956. What’s your basis for claiming that they don’t apply?

  17. #17 |  BamBam | 

    Most who say they’re fine with it say they’re fine with it because they’re good cops, and because citizen video is far more likely to protect them against false accusations than to incriminate them.

    If truth be told, change it to:
    Most who say they’re fine with it say they’re fine with it because they know their union, The State (prosecutors, judges, idiot citizens) and the Blue Wall of Silence has their back, so they know they will get away with just about anything regardless of evidence.

  18. #18 |  JS | 

    ClubMedSux “But ultimately it just seems like none of the cops I know are ever willing to look at things from a different perspective.”

    Because, like a religious cult, they insulate themselves from any other perspective. They live in the megolamaniac echo chamber where they are surrounded by flatterers and ass kissers who constantly tell them they are heros. This more than anything else has created that dangerous us vs. them mentality. The only good non-cops are the ones who kiss their asses and worship them as gods. They are headed for a huge fall.

  19. #19 |  Mike T | 

    Iraq ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1956. What’s your basis for claiming that they don’t apply?

    That government was overthrown. Treaties are between governments, not countries. The Geneva Convention no more protected the Ba’athists who overthrew the signatory state than the anti-missile defense treaty we signed with the Soviet Union is still applicable with the Russian Federation.

  20. #20 |  Mike T | 

    Not that I’m advocate of torture, mind you. It’s just that treaties are nothing more than a contract between governments. When one government goes belly up, it is no more a party anymore than a corporation that’s been dissolved in Chapter 11.

  21. #21 |  Mike T | 

    and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause

    Furthermore, the US could simply state “we interpret detention to mean detention as a person of minimal interest to active hostilities, not one recently captured and who has an operational role in active hostilities.”

  22. #22 |  EdinMiami | 

    http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/375

    Article 2 paragraph 3: Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

    Seems to me you don’t have to sign it to benefit from it. Assuming those who sign it abide by it.

    Mike, how does one recently captured have an “operational role in active hostilities”? Unless the active role was to be captured, but then that would end with the capture therefore negating any “operational role”. /shrug

  23. #23 |  Jake Boone | 

    It’s just that treaties are nothing more than a contract between governments. When one government goes belly up, it is no more a party anymore than a corporation that’s been dissolved in Chapter 11.

    Aha! So if toppling a government means the “state” goes away for purposes of the Conventions, then the Fourth Geneva Convention now applies instead of the Third, and has since the moment Saddam’s regime fell, wouldn’t you agree? The Fourth, you’ll remember, contains the same language about detention and torture.

    And yes, the US could state whatever the hell they want, but it’d still be a war crime by any rational measure, since the text of the treaty allows for no such exceptions.

  24. #24 |  Jay | 

    Mike T, #20:

    How about our little Cuban-American Treaty that gives us access to Gitmo?

  25. #25 |  Deoxy | 

    Article 2 paragraph 3: Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

    “the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations” would mean “the people who sign the treaty are bound by it in their treatment of each other [that's what "mutual relations" would mean in this context] even if there are other groups in the same conflict who are not signers of the treaty.”

    That is, if you don’t sign the treaty, you don’t benefit (well, the treaty doesn’t demand that you do, anyway). In general, I think torture is bad, etc, and it’s good for us not to do it, etc, but the Geneva Conventions only apply in conflicts between signatories – third parties don’t have to follow them, nor do signers have to follow them when fighting third parties.

    Now, some things (such as torture) are generally held to be war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc, whether you’ve signed any given piece of paper or not. No sense bringing up the Geneva Conventions when they are not required (especially when they are also not applicable).

  26. #26 |  Bernard | 

    The logic here is really twisted.

    Firstly he acknowledges police recordings will under no circumstances be used to exonerate a falsely accused citizen. Good. I’m glad that at least some police admit that the blue wall of silence precludes the possibility of evidence incriminating cops ever seeing the light of day.

    But his reasoning the other way is bizarre. The idea that people wouldn’t come forward with recordings exonerating cops who are falsely accused of malfeasance relies on an assumption that the ‘us vs them’ mentality that the cops have built up is mirrored by the public at large. In fact the evidence from juries and political campaigns is that the opposite is true. People give the police a huge amount of leeway and will go to great lengths to imagine that they’re innocent unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary.

    This feels like a guilty conscience talking, in that this police officer has come to expect the kind of unanimous public derision that some aspects of the current policing hierarchy deserve even though the public don’t actually feel that way. It’s like the habitual liar who sees everything other people say as questionable because their own conduct is the baseline.

  27. #27 |  Dante | 

    Bernard said:
    “relies on an assumption that the ‘us vs them’ mentality that the cops have built up is mirrored by the public at large.”

    I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me the situation is very much “us vs. them”. The police are the enemy of truth, freedom, justice, and much more that We The People hold dear. They kill dogs, children and old people just for sport, and then they look you right in the eye and tell you that they had to shoot your 7 year-old because she was a “threat”.

    There is a VERY GOOD REASON the police are called “pigs”.

  28. #28 |  EdinMiami | 

    Deoxy, except the second sentence references the unsigned party (i.e. “Power”) and mandates treatment with the caveat of “if”. The clear problem then is must the unsigned “Power” sign before receiving the benefit. I think not. First is the obvious problem of ratification in time of conflict for the unsigned party. Second, positing that unsigned parties do not get protection requires one to believe that Crimes against Humanity happen only when your representative signs on the bottom line. Clearly that cannot be the intent. Last, our own law requires equal treatment between citizen and non-citizen. If the difference between the former and the latter is unequivocal power, then we are surely doomed.

  29. #29 |  supercat | 

    #28 | EdinMiami | July 19th, 2011 at 5:31 pm //The clear problem then is must the unsigned “Power” sign before receiving the benefit. I think not.//

    That’s not a “problem”–that’s an essential part of why anyone was willing to ratify the Geneva conventions in the first place. If non-signatories would receive the same benefits as signatories, what’s the benefit to signing, or abiding by the agreement once signed? The reason countries signed and (mostly) abided by the Geneva Conventions is that they wanted to ensure the well-being of those captured by the enemy. If Germany had believed that we would treat their solders well no matter what they did to hours, they would likely not have treated ours as well as they did.

  30. #30 |  supercat | 

    #4 | C. S. P. Schofield | July 19th, 2011 at 11:31 am //It makes my really uneasy when somebody nominally in agreement with me reaches for that justification.//

    The normal correct response to that justification is “I do have things to hide, but they’re not illegal, and they’re nobody’s business but my own”. Government employees on the public payroll, however, are generally supposed to be operating above-board. They’re really not supposed to have much to hide, at least with regard to their official duties.

  31. #31 |  supercat | 

    #4 | C. S. P. Schofield | July 19th, 2011 at 11:31 am //I think that one thing we need to keep in mind at all time when we discuss these issues of surveillance and law enforcement is that the absence of ever-present video cameras meant that there was some wiggle room between what people SAID the laws was and what they actually expected to see enforced.//

    I don’t think cameras really change that except in situations where cops either (1) make reasonable allowances for people they like, while being exceedingly strict with those they don’t [e.g. a cop mostly ignores cars driving 34 in a 25 zone, but nails people with Ralph Nader bumper stickers if they drive over 26], or (2) demonstrate wanton indifference toward patently-illegal conduct which targets people the cops don’t like [e.g. a cop stands by and does nothing while some crooks vandalize a car sporting a Ralph Nader bumper sticker]. And in those cases I think the cop’s “wiggle” room should be curtailed. In the former case, video of the cop ignoring cars going 34 should constitute evidence of a de facto speed limit of 34 or above; in the latter case, the video should be grounds for firing the cop, and perhaps for regarding him as an accessory to the crime.

  32. #32 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Jake Boone,

    The government that signed on to the Treaty in 1956 was overthrown in 1958. Are you saying that the treaties signed by the previous government apply? I don’t think it works like that – either in theory or in the mess we call real life.

  33. #33 |  Bernard | 

    Hi Dante,

    I didn’t say the ‘us vs them’ thing is unjustified. The blue wall of silence makes it a reasonable response and things like the ‘don’t snitch’ campaign have institutionalised it among communities which have had a particularly bad time with police behaviour.

    My point is that in spite of distrust being a rational response the vast majority of the public still give the police the benefit of the doubt unless the evidence against them is overwhelming (and sometiems even them). That makes it particularly galling for a police officer to reference a public wall of silence which doesn’t exist.

    As I said, it’s a guilty reaction akin to a habitual liar who, because everyone else could be like them, doesn’t trust what other people say.

  34. #34 |  Jake Boone | 

    C.S.P. Schofield,

    That’s the point. Once a government is toppled, the previous state of affairs no longer holds. This is exactly as true for Saddam Hussein’s government as it was for the Kingdom of Iraq in 1958.

    Since the creation of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, Iraq has been ruled by a series of governments. None of those governments have rejected the Geneva Conventions, and all thus gained the legal protections allowed to non-signatories who nevertheless abide by the treaty’s conditions.

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