Caught on Camera

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Recording police interactions leads to better accountability for all parties involved.

The importance of accountability via photography and video is gaining favor both within police departments and with the general public. One in six police departments in the U.S. have instituted body cameras which attach to the front of officers’ uniforms. Bill Bratton, the NYPD Commissioner remarked, “Officers not familiar with the technology may see it as something harmful. But the irony is, officers actually tend to benefit. Very often, the officer’s version of events is the accurate version.” Complaints against the police have been shown to drop significantly – in Rialto, California, they were down 88 percent after cameras started being worn by officers. For the NYPD to fully implement a camera program, it would cost an estimated $32 million which seems like a hefty amount. But considering they paid out $152 million in settlements in just one year, it may be worth the money. 

With the ubiquity of smartphones, people have the tools to make public officials more accountable. Cases of police brutality have been catching the public’s attention, mostly due to the violent incidents being caught on tape. In July two dramatic videos were captured: Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year old woman, was beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer, and Eric Garner was killed after the NYPD put him in a chokehold. Both scenes were recorded by nearby witnesses. Pinnock said, “Without the video my word may have not meant anything,” while Garner’s death has officially been ruled a homicide.

The website Photography is Not a Crime publishes user-submitted videos and photographs documenting police abuse ranging from physical violence to unlawful arrests to cases where officers have deleted images from cameras that have been seized. The problem of police brutality even applies to animals. This website has a map of user-submitted “puppycides.” Another initiative is the “Stop and Frisk Watch” app which is a specialized resource that allows users to record the police. The app then sends the footage to the New York Civil Liberties Union. It also includes a “Know Your Rights” component which is an important element since taping police officers in public places is protected by the First Amendment, however state laws vary on some aspects of this, such as recording audio conversations (some states require consent of both parties).

Photo courtesy of the author.

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