Cops on Camera

Turning the Cameras on the Police

I wonder how celebrities feel about being in the eye of the camera all of the time, if those million dollar smiles masquerade the fear and apprehension of being photographed with a piece of food lodged between your teeth. The worst case scenario maybe that they are terribly embarrassed, in which case they fire the personal assistant who’s in charge of food stuck in teeth. Unless you’re Courtney Love, then nothing embarrasses you.

With this in mind, I ponder whether or not the police have the right to deter or prevent private citizens from videotaping or taking pictures of police, civilian encounters. In today’s day and age, just about everyone has a cell phone that is equipped with a camera and in some cases the ability to shoot video. Cops know this and those that don’t maybe need to find a new profession. Police work flows freely, shit happens when it decides to happen. There is no script, there is no director yelling cut at the scene of a police civilian encounter where the police have to use physical force so that cell phones and cameras can be collected. In those situations, the issue of civilians shooting videos or taking pictures is moot. The cop is not going to stop to collect phones or to make sure no one is filming before getting into a fisticuffs with the mutt that just snatched grandma’s handbag.

The majority of cops are good cops trying to do the right thing. The notion that we need to make cops more apprehensive than they already are by reinforcing the fact that ‘big brother’ is watching is ridiculous. Cops already know that they are constantly being watched. How has that affected police work? I don’t think we have the quantitative evidence to answer that question. I can answer it just from my own experiences as a cop. If I were a cop in today’s age of advanced technology, I don’t think I would have been as aggressive as I was and as a result, I would have been a less effective cop.

Take that aggressive edge away from cops and you will turn them from courageous sheep dogs who protect the flock from the wolves into a meek, mild mannered lap dogs. Trust me when I say that we don’t want our cities and towns policed by cops who believe in doing as little as possible in order to avoid having their pictures taken with food stuck between their teeth. Smile.


10 responses to “Cops on Camera

  1. Donna Cherwinski

    Have you ever been to Florida? After living in NY and seeing cops who take their job seriously, living in Florida is a joke. They are the laziest cops in the Country. If they think they will have to do paperwork, or got to court; it becomes a non-case. I actually heard a cop say “It’s almost time for me to go home and I’m not getting involved in anything.” It was a serious thing, but it was almost time for him to go home. Of course they make very little money here, but that is exactly what the state gets back. Very little.

  2. You’d be surprised as to how much of that does go on in New York. Don’t get me wrong, N.Y. cops are some of the best in world. Whether it be NYPD or Nassau County. I do believe that society’s negative opinions and attitudes towards police has in a way created an apathetic environment amongst police officers. When I first became a cop in New York City in 1980 no one ever talked about retirement. By the time I left in 1995 for Nassau County the mantra was 20 and out. Police Officers, although a special breed of individuals are still human beings. They need to feel appreciated and supported by the community they serve. If you’re worried about losing your job because you were doing your job, it may make you think twice about doing your job.

  3. Hi Eddie,
    I’ve never heard that police have the legal right to stop citizens from filming police, civilian encounters. Do they have that right in New York?

    I just finished reading Moskos’ Cop in the Hood (how I found your blog).

    It seems to me that a cop, in any given encounter, is acting within the bounds of the law or not. If a cop is acting legally, then video of the encounter shouldn’t be an issue. If the cop is acting illegally, yet the action is justified, perhaps we need to change the law so that the action is legal.

    • Hi Mike,
      As far as I know, under New York law, citizens do have the right to film or photograph police civilian encounters in public. There are some states where it’s illegal to videotape someone (anyone, not just police) without their consent, but I don’t think NY is one of them.
      As to your second point, that would certainly be true in a perfect world. But we know too well, this world is not perfect. There are a few issues here. The main one to me is not what cops are caught on tape doing, but what they will avoid doing just out of fear of being caught on tape. It’s so easy to misconstrue something in a video or picture – even when they look like they’re 100% the truth, you don’t know what’s been left out, what preceded the incident, etc.
      The fear of “Is someone going to tape this and make me look bad?” can prevent cops from doing proactive policing. They’re not going to take risks and stick their necks out to keep people safe if they’re afraid of their actions being taped and misrepresented (especially since they know that in most cases, right or wrong, the department will gladly throw them to the wolves for the sake of public relations). They’re going to play it safe, not get involved in situations until it is completely clear to do so. Yeah, that guy over there looks like he’s up to no good, but why am I going to risk my job and get involved when I don’t have to? I don’t to be accused of harassing him just because he’s a minority or something. So instead I wait, he robs that lady on the street, I’ll get the call, THEN I’ll get involved because I don’t have to justify my actions anymore. I’m not taking any risks, but I’m not preventing any crime either.
      I’m going to do a follow up post about what aggressive/proactive policing means and why it’s important, so stay tuned.

  4. Yeah, that guy over there looks like he’s up to no good, but why am I going to risk my job and get involved when I don’t have to? I don’t to be accused of harassing him just because he’s a minority or something.

    I think this is the root of the matter. As a relatively law abiding citizen, in a very safe community, what I really want from the police is to be left alone while feeling safe. I expect I would feel different if I lived in a high crime area. Then what I wanted from police would be security, safety.

    So to me, it does sound more or less bad that you’ll stop someone on a feeling. I’m not trying to annoy you here; I’m trying to understand. I respect your experience.

    I look forward to the post on aggressive/proactive policing.

    • First of all Mike you’re not being annoying. I’m happy that you enjoy reading my blog and someone finds it thought provoking.

      As you are, most people are decent law abiding citizens whose only contact with the police might be to ask directions. Well in today’s day and age just about everyone has a GPS device, but you get my point.

      Most of the arrests made by the police are as a result of self-generated police work. That is to say, not as a result of someone calling 911 to report a crime where the police respond and arrest the perpetrator because he was too stupid to flee. In a large percentage of those calls, the police are responding to a crime that has occurred in the past. The criminal has fled, the police take a report, and depending on the guidelines of the particular department, it can be referred to various Detective units.

      Self-generated police work can either serve to deter criminal activity from occurring in the first place, or detect criminality once it is afoot, resulting in an arrest. At times, police self-generated activity can be initiated by a “gut feeling” or a “hunch”. A police officer’s observations can trigger this “gut feeling” that something is not quite right – these are based on years and years of experience dealing with and observing criminal behaviors and such. For example, a police officer on patrol observes a white van cruising through a residential neighborhood slowing down as it approaches the houses on the block. Could it be that they are looking for an address, sure. Could it also be that they are casing these same homes for the purpose of committing a burglary? What is an officer to do? Ignore it and go about their business, only to receive an assignment an hour later of a burglary on the same street where he observed the van? And while taking the report he discovers that a witness observed a white van parked in front of the burglarized home?

      Wouldn’t we as law abiding citizens (or residents of those homes) prefer that the cop act on his “hunch”, and stop the van and conduct an investigation, without violating anyone’s rights? He can pull the van over, ask the driver a few questions, and observe the driver’s reaction (and in the process, letting this person know that the police did in fact notice him). In Terry V. Ohio, Chief Justice Warren in delivering the court’s opinion stated, “It would have been poor police work indeed for an officer of 30 years’ experience in the detection of thievery from stores in this same neighborhood to have failed to investigate this behavior further.” There is no doubt in my mind that in Terry v. Ohio, Police Officer McFadden’s initial suspicion was triggered by a “hunch”. If the driver was legitimately looking for an address, the officer apologizes for the minor inconvenience. If driver was casing homes, but the officer is unable to develop probable cause, he’s at least deterred a burglary that day. But he has developed information that can be useful in future investigations. Or he can win the grand prize when he discovers the rear of the van filled with the proceeds of a prior burglary or two.

      I hope this clarifies my point. The rules of law concerning stop-question or stop-question-frisk are very complicated and confusing, especially to someone who is not experienced in their applications. If you don’t allow cops to investigate further or act on their hunches, you’ll have police departments full of officers who do nothing but respond to calls and do nothing to prevent crime.

  5. It’s certainly true that videotaping police is likely to have all sorts of unintended consequences. At the same time, there are hundreds of cases of arrogant, ugly and often illegal behavior on the part of police that would never have come to light if it were not for video cameras. Just read Rodney Balko over at The Agitator. Watch some of the videos that he posts. The cops in those videos make things difficult for the other 99% of well-behaved law enforcement professionals. It’s a difficult situation, but the fact is that transparency is better than no transparency, and there’s nothing to be done about the ubiquity of cameras. We’re all under the spotlight. And outside our own homes we need to behave as though everything we do is public knowledge.

    • You make some very good points.  All we have to do is remember the Rodney King case. If it were not for a video camera, what those cops did that night would have never come to light. What those cops did to Mr. King, in my opinion, was deplorable. Not only that, but the subsequent events that occurred in Los Angeles after they were found not guilty was also deplorable. Some may argue that the riots were a direct consequence of the police officers’ actions that night.
      I think that legislation which bans the public from video taping or photographing cops while they perform their duties in public goes against our Constitution and the First Amendment. However I don’t think the general public understands the nature of police work. Transparency may be a good thing, but is the public willing to pay the price of those unintended consequences?

  6. Eddie,
    Thanks for the explication on traffic stops.
    It’s interesting that Dan Armstrong references The Agitator because I’d like you to comment on this post there.

  7. Mike,
    I will definitely check it out and possibly comment on it. Thanks!

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