Police on camera: a double-edged sword

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police brutality

Why the anti-police movement has got to stop

Sean Stoker | Opinions Editor | @theroyalthey

Not too long ago, we lived in a world where the average person did not carry a high definition camera with Internet access at all times. Having lived this way for several years now, we’ve approached a new era of exposé-style citizen journalism the likes Nelly Bly would be proud of. In many situations, like how British blogger Eliot Higgins has been able to track the movements of the Russian military through Ukraine—despite repeated denials of military action from the Russian government—this has had positive effects.

But at times, though it is well-meaning, this can cause disproportionate reactions among the public—a dog-pile effect that instantly polarizes the internet-connected world about the shocking issue at hand. One such example is the increasing coverage of police brutality.

It seems with increasing frequency that the news media is calling out law enforcement for acting too brashly, convicting them in the court of public opinion based on amateur video from a civilian’s cellphone.

Sgt. Levi Hughes, formerly of Utah’s Joint Criminal Apprehension Team, is skeptical of the value of police encounters caught on video.

“People see what they want to see,” said Hughes, “People thought the camera was going to be a catch-all. If you show a video in a courtroom, what else do you need to show? But a video only catches what a bystander does. That is, one angle. Even if the camera catches all the audio and is an officer-worn camera, what the camera can’t tell you is the experience of the officer wearing the camera, the training they’ve had, previous encounters with the individual, or similar situations that have led to violence or death.”

It’s also easy, Hughes says, to overanalyze what you see on tape.

“When you replay the incident,” said Hughes, “The individual watching has all the time in the world to pause, rewind and watch it again, when the officer couldn’t, and had to make a decision in that moment as to what he does to preserve life and property, which he’s sworn by oath to do. This is the stress the camera cannot capture.”

The issue becomes even murkier when you add in the accusation that many of these highly charged moments are actually racially motivated. Sgt. Hughes is troubled by the perception that the police as an institution target minorities.

“Is it possible or probable that there are those in our profession who are racist?” said Hughes, “Yes. Is it possible that they have acted inappropriately because of that? I think the answer to that is clearly yes. But to brand all law enforcement as a bunch of racists and bigots because of the actions of a few, is to commit the same act they are accusing us of. It almost seems as if there is a push out there to convince people that police officers are racists, and the fact is this: speaking from personal experience, I can’t count the number of times I’ve chased fugitives, made arrests or had my gun trained on an individual. I could not tell you how many times it was an African-American, a Hispanic, a Caucasian, a male, a female. I don’t know. I don’t remember the skin color or gender of anyone who was at the other end of my pistol. But what I can tell you is this: If I ever pointed my pistol at anyone, it’s to preserve the safety of myself and those around me.”

A close friend of mine, Max Colby (Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent, other details left intact), was on the receiving end of police brutality several years ago while serving an LDS mission in Virginia.

“We were tracting in this one spot,” said Colby, “This guy comes out of his house screaming profanities at us.” Colby’s companion told the man to “have a nice day,” to which the man said, “F— you!”

Not wanting trouble, the two kept walking through the neighborhood, knocking on doors. On the way back, Colby noticed a police car sitting in the man’s driveway. This was an off-duty cop.

“I wrote down his license plate number and thought, ‘I’m not going to do anything; this is just me blowing off steam. If I still feel angry on Monday, I’ll call the police station and make a complaint,’ but I wasn’t going to do anything.” Colby said.

As soon as Colby began writing the number down, the man came back out of his house, screaming and swearing, demanding their licenses. His companion complied, but Colby hesitated to show the officer his license.

“I thought, why does he need to see my license? I’m not driving,” said Colby. “I asked him why he needed to see it, and he says, ‘Give it to me.’”

Colby refused to hand over his license and they argued the point for a moment.

“If you’re not going to tell us why we need to show you our licenses,” Colby said, “then we’re just going to go home.”

Colby grabbed his companion’s license out of the officer’s hand so they could leave. Apparently, this is where the officer drew the line.

“If it was my license, it might have been okay,” said Colby. “But since it wasn’t my license it was ‘a part of the police officer’ so touching that license meant I was ‘assaulting a police officer.’”

Before he knew it, the officer was forcing Colby to the ground in a “chicken wing” hold. Colby’s companion made a move to protect him, to which the officer held a gun to Colby’s head, saying, “I can’t f—ing fight both of you.”

More police were called to the scene and Colby was forced to the ground and handcuffed while the first officer kicked him repeatedly in the head and shoulders. Ultimately he spent the evening in jail before making bail and being pardoned, and the officer was fired, as this was not his first episode of violence.

One would think, given this experience, that Colby might adopt N.W.A’s stance regarding the police, but surprisingly, his position is more nuanced than that.

“Cops, in general, are good people,” said Colby “They’re protecting and serving. There are a few bad apples and this guy would be one of them. I don’t think there is a cop problem. I think there is a population problem. Every single time they get pulled over by a cop now, everyone’s pulling out their cell phone and recording the conversation. It’s kind of ridiculous. I don’t think the counter-movement against cops is helping anyone. It’s a very unfortunate byproduct of a few unfortunate situations.”