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Who Watches the Watchmen

By Victor C. Wu

If asked to picture what the police do, many of us might turn to “Cops,” the hit reality show in which a camera crew follows officers on the job, providing 30-minute vignettes of law enforcement for its TV audience. And apparently, since 1989, we have enjoyed watching. Most of the time, however, despite what “Cops” might suggest, we do not actually get to see police officers at work.

Sadly, when we do catch a glimpse, videos all too often capture not marketable arrest scenes but rather the dark underbelly of law enforcement. A quick Google search will yield story after story of police officers caught on tape in controversial episodes of violence, from the beating of Rodney King in 1991 to the killing of Luis Rodriguez mere weeks ago. The existence of these videos is, on one hand, deeply unfortunate. But on the other, perhaps we would actually benefit from more of these expositions. To improve accountability and reduce the number of tragedies, it is essential to videotape police actions as often as possible—indeed, one of the great benefits of this modern media is the powerful transparency it can offer the public.

In many contentious cases in the past, videos have provided critical evidence that otherwise likely would have been unknown. Only a security camera was able to capture Kelly Thomas’s pleas for mercy and officers’ declarations that they “smashed his face to hell.” In the case of Rodney King, if a bystander had not secretly recorded officers viciously beating King while he lay passively on the ground, the incident may have simply been logged as a case of “resisting arrest” or a similar transgression against law enforcement. This potential for misrepresentation of facts is particularly disturbing. For instance, Bobby Bennett was shot and arrested by police officers in October 2013, supposedly for lunging at them with a knife. But a surveillance video from the home of Bennett’s neighbor plainly showed that the police shot Bennett while he was standing still, with his arms down, about 20 feet away. In Bennett’s case, official police reports directly contradicted the reality caught on camera.

This is not to say that police officers in general are somehow corrupt or abusive by any means. On the contrary, those involved in notorious incidents are the exception, not the rule. Still, the existence of even some of these cases underscores the ever-present need for accountability in the actions of law enforcement. We as a society entrust the police with weapons and a unique license to use them—a “monopoly on legitimate violence,” as sociologist Max Weber called it. Accordingly, the appropriate use of police power is of utmost public concern and essential to a fair and functional justice system. Reliable, publicly accessible recordings would improve trust in law enforcement—trust that many minorities in particular currently do not have—by giving us more confidence that justice is indeed being served.

Video evidence, which can act as an impartial account of events, is not only valuable for defendants as a check against abuses of authority by police, but also for law enforcement agents: After all, video evidence is as powerful in convicting as it is in acquitting. And yet in Thomas, King, and Bennett’s tragic cases, video feeds existed only because an inadvertent third party happened to pick them up. In essence, we are so well-informed of such tragic incidents only by chance. With modern technology at our disposal, we can change that.

Now more than ever, we have the power and responsibility in our hands to contribute to a fairer justice system. The widespread ownership of smartphones allows ordinary bystanders to serve as civic reporters. Groups such as Photography is Not a Crime, founded in 2007 by photojournalist Carlos Miller after he was arrested for taking pictures of police, advocate on our behalf for civilian journalistic freedom. Recently, our legal infrastructure has starting catching up as well. In the 2011 case Glik v. Cunniffe concerning a 2007 arrest in nearby Boston Commons, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld private citizens’ rights to record audio and video of public officials in public locations. However, videotaping of police is still a contentious issue, and people today are still being arrested for attempting to hold police accountable. This is a dangerous infraction of civil liberties, something that we as a society must not tolerate.

Beyond civilian empowerment, law enforcement agencies must adapt if they want to avoid more Rodney Kings. Police departments, for instance, should deliberately record officers on the job, ensuring a streaming log of video evidence. Indeed, some police departments have actually begun to move in this direction: For instance, the Orlando Police Department is experimenting with body cameras, and the Los Angeles Police Department recently began equipping officers with wearable cameras. This video technology introduces a constant transparency into law enforcement. What’s more, police officers conscious of the fact that their actions are recorded and may be seen by the public will feel encouraged to act honorably.

In the end, though, the value of video depends on the information it provides us and in turn, on whether we make use of it to demand accountability. A wise Roman poet once asked the question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—“Who will watch the watchmen?” In this day and age of media technology, we have a ready answer: all of us.

Victor C. Wu ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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