By Sean Brooks
Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to bar media from the ousting of protestors camping in Zuccotti Park and to restrict media attempting to cover other confrontations between protesters and police is a prime example of police forces acting outside their best interests. Instead of recognizing the inevitability of video coming out of the park clearing, the police left the documenting to biased amateurs and, in some instances, violently silenced journalists. Video can elicit a strong emotional response to events, but most of the videos that emerge from events like the Occupy protests are amateur at best, and only illustrate a single perspective. Due to their ability to incense both public and legal opinion, amateur videos can dramatically shift focus away from important context. Further, the prospect of such videos making a major difference in official police oversight proceedings is unfortunately limited.
The increasing availability of high resolution video of controversial events both makes major inroads in solving accountability problems and creates a vast new set of issues. Video evidence, unlike written or verbal testimonials, provides a greater degree of proof-of-action. And while the proliferation of amateur video has the potential to erode classic Thin Blue Line-styles of insular protection among police organizations, such footage can run awry of evidence mandates that would exclude its admission into courts, reviews or appeals. In several states, recording any individual without explicit permission is a crime under antiquated wiretapping laws, but this may be changing. In Massachusetts, the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the rights of individuals to openly record police activity.
A significant rethinking of how police accountability is managed in our country is necessary, particularly in places like college campuses where officers receive their orders from unelected authorities who are substantially more detached from the representative justice of the polls. Many police forces suffer from histories of resisting accountability through collective resistance to public inquiries, investigations and ethical reviews. As violence and abuse exercised by police in this country become increasingly visible, old models of protectionism no longer shield officers from scrutiny. Instead of an officer’s spoken word against a protestor’s, it is now an officer’s spoken word against the thousands spoken by videos.
In the wake of the Zucotti clearing and other similar actions around the country, several high profile opinion pieces have explored the “paramilitarization” of American police – the increasing use of tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, sandbag launchers, and tasers, all fired from behind layers of bullet-proof shielding and Kevlar. One would expect that the increased deployment of paramilitary tools would go hand-in-hand with military discipline, yet numerous amateur videos have emerged illuminating the astonishingly cavalier manner in which officers are using these tools. Only by enhancing accountability can we hope to impress the consequences of justice upon those who use these tools irresponsibly.
At the Occupy Wall Street march onTimes Square, NYPD representatives could be seen throughout the day making their own recordings of the events. Clearly, theNew Yorkpolice force has learned of the powerful ability of video to vindicate or incriminate and is attempting to use video to review (or protect) its own practices. Should we require that these recordings be a matter of public record and be posted in their full duration for public consumption? Or will that make police officers less likely to comply with videotaping mandates? Should voluntary compliance be a necessary consideration when discussing police accountability?
The other side of this issue is the inherent bias of the citizen filmmaker. When you see an “eyewitness” citizen participant video, that’s exactly what you’re seeing – a single person’s perspective. Without a broader perspective, the actions of police can seem overly reactive, dangerous or even repressive. Take, for example, the controversial video and images to emerge from the Occupy Davis protests. The officers in question appear to have used pepper spray out of sheer laziness or cruelty, yet their defense was that the crowd around them was growing increasingly threatening. Without offering an opinion on the legitimacy of these claims, I can suppose that a video showing a wider perspective on the events might lead the public to come to very different conclusions about the appropriate use of force. But that would have required a video that was intentionally trying to capture the full scope of the confrontation – a video with a more professional, unbiased purpose.
The modern professional media has seen its role hotly debated and has even been declared dead. There is, however, a great opportunity for the American media to offer unbiased insight into heated events by bringing a trained eye and a wide, independent perspective to the table. To be sure, there are continual and perhaps legitimate cries from both sides about media bias, but restricting media from participation in the social discourse is no solution. Instead, the prospect of media bias only enhances the need for both citizens and police to open their doors even wider and ensure that members from all corners of the media are encouraged to do their jobs.
As amateur video increasingly tells the story of controversial events, those with the ability to illustrate a situation with technical expertise and without bias have an increasing responsibility to engage their skills, and Americans, both citizens and police, have an increasing responsibility to let them. Specifically, practices designed to hide police actions under the cover of darkness, or to restrict the presence of media at major confrontations, should be not just stopped, but reversed. The Bloomberg administration and other leaders from across the country should consider a new practice – one that mandates that the public be alerted before such actions are conducted. Cities must encourage all forms of media outlets to record citizen interactions with police, particularly in these volatile times.
Be sure to check out Sean’s last Op-Ed! Just click here.