Friday, August 08, 2008

The Prevalence of Police Abuse

There are certainly more stories of police abuse hitting the news outlets, at an accelerating pace. This is resulting in greater awareness in the general public of the police abusing their powers. Whether it is tasering a driver on the highways of Utah, tackling a kid in Baltimore because he is riding a skateboard, strip searching the victim of an assault, or the many examples of SWAT team raids of wrong houses often resulting in the death of either the occupants or even police, these stories are circulating with an ever increasing frequency.

There are two theories about why this is so. One is that the rise of inexpensive digital cameras and video cameras has made it easier to capture police misconduct, and the rise of YouTube has made it easier to spread the stories captured. In the past these issues were investigated only if the news were to make an issue of it. As video cameras became more popular it was still up to the news, but it was harder for news outlets to ignore police abuse. As a result of private footage of Rodney King being aired on television the police involved were eventually held accountable.

The television networks can choose whether or not to air any privately recorded footage, and as a result it is possible that many recorded incidents never were shown to the public. The internet enables people to bypass the major media and as a result those incidents are available to be viewed by anyone with an internet connection. Being viewed, it then becomes possible for the public to pressure the media into covering the story in ways never before possible.

Another theory is that these incidents are indeed becoming more common. The erosion of civil liberties that has taken place over the last seven years of the war on terror, coupled with the almost forty years of waging the drug war, has created a climate where government enforcement officials are not only given greater authority, but given more incentive to act against those who question their authority. Failure to show respect, or even obeisance, is considered a direct challenge to the authority of the officers and it must be punished.

This is abetted by the taser, which is considered a non-lethal instrument (except for the times when it is lethal). This leads to it being used as a method of “pain compliance”. This is in violation of the entire Anglo system of law because pain compliance is a euphemism for “punishment” and that can only be decided in a court of law by a judge and a jury, not by a law enforcement official. Any officer who uses a taser for the purpose of disciplining someone who is not a threat but guilty of not obeying an officer is guilty of assault and battery – and that is before the question of whether an officer can give a "lawful order" in the first place that must be obeyed.

It is clear that many police feel that they are above the law that they are sworn to enforce. This is shown in so many ways, most recently by Jimmy Justice as he films the police breaking even simple laws and their irate reactions as he calls them on their activities. Sometimes catching police breaking the law can lead to legal trouble for the person with the camera, which is why Jimmy Justice acts pseudonymously.

Sometimes filming of law enforcement officials leads to their discipline, although not as often as it should. This trend is only going to accelerate. Some jurisdictions are fighting back with laws that prevent us from videotaping the police or even taking still photos as they perform their duties, calling these activities spying or obstruction respectively. The question remains how well ordinances and charges of this nature will hold up in court against what is left of our civil liberties.

Given the abusive nature of police today, it is a good idea to have a camera handy even if local ordinances forbid it. When accused of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct – a charge used when there is no specific law being broken but the officer simply doesn’t like what is being done – a camera recording the incident may be the best defense as it was in the case of a bicyclist assaulted by the NYPD. It can be used as evidence against the charges, and may even be useful if the department actually decides to discipline the officer.


GreatScott said...

Legislation in this area should be in the opposite direction, toward protecting those who film police activities as whistleblowers, placing restrictions on police ability to move cameras out of range, and requirement of a subpoena before a camera or film can be confiscated for "evidentiary" purposes.

Ayn R. Key said...

I agree it should be, but I predit otherwise.