Why Not Record Cops At Work?

I will never understand why police officers don’t embrace video recording of their work. But they don’t. Whether in the interrogation room, or on the street, lawmen fight for the right to keep the public they serve from seeing them in action.

Lawmakers are now considering a proposal to make it unlawful to video record a police officer making an arrest. That’s just plain stupid. Those arguing in favor of it should have their mugshots placed on a wall of public shame and ridicule.

Is videotaping distracting?


Many departments are moving in the direction of having video cameras in police cruisers. In some instances, the cameras are activated automatically when an officer turns on his hazard lights, for example. I doubt seriously that police brass would require this if it truly created a distraction.

Police departments ought to be embracing any low-cost technology that promotes transparency. Indeed, some departments make it impossible for officers to tamper with these car videos by using technology that downloads the images automatically. I’ve represented police officers accused of tampering with these videos. Police brass know the truth: Many officers don’t want what they do recorded for fear it will reflect poorly on how they do their jobs.

Public confidence in policing will only improve with broader public understanding of what police officers do and how they do it.

A standard tactic in a police interrogation is to challenge a suspect reluctant to talk with some version of the following: “Hey, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, right?” It’s more than a little ironic that officers are now running for cover in the name of truth and justice.

For years, police fought recording interrogations of suspects. To this very day, agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation refuse, as a matter of policy, to record, or to permit to be recorded, their interviews. Instead, two agents attend every interview. One asks questions, the other takes detailed notes. When a dispute later arises about what took place at the interview, it’s the agent’s word against the accused.

You know how that generally works out, don’t you?

Recordings of interrogations generally resolve disputes of fact about what was said and how it was said, so long as the recording captures the entire interrogation. Unfortunately, many departments still permit lengthy interviews before a camera is turned on. All that gets recorded is the polished script, the one worked on in secret, when the recorder or camera was off.

Many disputes could be resolved by use of widespread recordings. Lawyers refer to “swearing contests” as hearings in which the decision about what took place revolves entirely on which witness is believed. When two sides swear to tell the truth but their testimony is at odds, someone is often wrong. Recordings rarely lie.

The more transparent we can make the investigative activities of police officers, the better. Police are public servants, right? Aren’t they supposed to be our friends? Friends don’t ask to cover their tracks.

There already are laws on the books making it a crime to interfere with a police officer doing his job. Connecticut law makes it a misdemeanor carrying as much as one year in prison to obstruct, hinder or delay a police officer in the performance of his duties. If the manner in which an officer is being recorded keeps him from doing his job, he has a remedy. We don’t need another law criminalizing the commonplace.

Smartphones have transformed the world. We are all mobile film crews. Thousands of new videos are posted on YouTube each day; many of them are brief, candid views of events taking place in real-time recorded with a cellphone. Some of them involve the police. A new law isn’t going to prevent these films from being taken. It will simply make criminals out of folks who are trying to hold the police accountable. That will not promote respect for the law.

Every day, folks call my office to complain about how the police have treated them. Most of these complaints don’t amount to much. The police were rude. Well, the Constitution doesn’t impose on them a duty to be polite, I tell the callers. An officer was gruff and used force to make an arrest. Again, all the Constitution prohibits is unreasonable force. Not every push, pull or shove, when seen from the calm of the well of the court, is unreasonable, a famous Supreme Court cases teaches. I remind potential clients: I don’t write these crazy laws and screwball judicial opinions — I just read them.

What all of these callers share is a sense of indignity, of having been violated. They expect decent and civil treatment from police officers. Many are offended when told the law does not require that. But it’s true: The courts are hostile to claims against cops. Most are tossed out the courthouse door before a jury sees them. At the very least, can’t we make a public record of what the police are doing? If we won’t let juries see the truth, can’t we at least let the community see it?

The police are the public face of the law. Most of us never meet a congressman, or attend a public hearing. But almost all of us have had an encounter of some form or another with a police officer, whether at a traffic stop, asking directions or as part of a crowd being directed to move from one spot to another. A bad cop, a rude cop, an uncivil cop is the face the sovereign snarling. It offends people to be treated poorly.

There is no good reason to prohibit people from recording the police at work. None. If we are going to permit police officers to use force, to arrest, to impose themselves on others in the name of the public, the public has a right to see what’s being done in its name. A law denying us that right is an outrage not to be endured.


Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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