Since the issue of filming police became a hot topic in the mainstream press (see here), I’ve been very interested in hearing the arguments that police use to justify placing limits on the right to record cops. To me, the idea that people ought to be allowed to film police (and that they should actually film the police) seems like a no-brainer and gets reinforced just about every time I open a newspaper, so I’m interested in trying to understand exactly why someone would oppose it. What I’ve noticed is that virtually every single argument leveled against filming the police is just downright stupid.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, provides the textbook example. Some of Pasco’s thoughts were reported by Radley Balko in a Reason Magazine article back in August. For reference, here are Pasco’s comments (and see here for my response):
“There’s no chain of custody with these videos,” Pasco says. “How do you know the video hasn’t been edited? How do we know what’s in the video hasn’t been taken out of context? With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it’s admissible under the rules of evidence. That’s not the case with these cell phone videos.”
“You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report,” Pasco says. “Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.”
– Radley Balko, “‘Police Officers Don’t Check Their Civil Rights at the Station House Door’” (Aug. 9, 2010), Reason Magazine
Recently, Pasco was quoted again on the issue of filming police, this time in a USA Today cover story:
“The proliferation of cheap video equipment is presenting a whole new dynamic for law enforcement,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union. “It has had a chilling effect on some officers who are now afraid to act for fear of retribution by video. This has become a serious safety issue. I’m afraid something terrible will happen.”
– Kevin Johnson, “For cops, citizen videos bring increased scrutiny” (Oct. 15th, 2010), USA Today
Back in August, Pasco’s slam dunk argument was to challenge advocates of filming the police to come up with ten cases of videos proving that cops lied. I would love to issue an analogous challenge to Pasco: can he think of ten police encounters (or “contacts” as he would call them) where video cameras have created “serious safety issues”?
Unfortunately, I think the chances of Pasco ever responding to such a challenge are slim, so instead I’ll just point out what should be obvious to anyone who has spent even five minutes thinking about the issue of filming police: the presence of a camera is never a safety concern for police officers. If anything, videos of police encounters are a boon “officer safety” because they provide reliable information about the encounter (and, for the same reason, they can protect officers from false reports of misconduct). The only reason a police officer should be afraid of “retribution by video” is if he or she is trying to do something that is illegal or violates department policy. As many cops like to say, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide.”
Pasco, by my estimation, will never be able to come up with ten such incidents because they simply do not exist. Indeed, Pasco seems to have already tacitly acknowledged that he cannot meet this challenge. His remark that he is “afraid something terrible will happen” indicates that, to the best of his knowledge, the terrible somethings that he imagines refer merely to hypothetical future events rather than anything that has ever actually happened in the real world.
Worse, the “chilling effect” that Pasco refers to, if it actually exists, is a symptom of incompetence. Police should be watched because there is a huge potential for them to be abusive (and if exposing abusive cops is “retribution by video,” then so be it), so if the class of legally-privileged protectors can’t do their jobs properly while being scrutinized, that’s not an argument for scrutinizing them less; it’s an argument for firing them and replacing them with people who are less camera shy. It’s not particularly uncommon for people working private sector jobs to be filmed constantly while working if their employers deem it necessary, so complaints about members of the public filming the police are just demands for special treatment.