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Technology Help Stem Police Brutality

23-Feb-08 10:56 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I know I sound to a lot of people who know me as being "down on Ottawa".  But my interactions with police, rare as they are, haven’t been as positive since my departure from Winnipeg. Is that because I’ve become intolerant and behave with greater disdain for authorities as I’ve grown older?  I don’t think we can say that; indeed, I think the degree to which I respect front-line police and understand their on-the-job challenges has improved, if anything.  Yet that understanding and respect has done little to win me any big favours from officers who’ve pulled me over on the four or five occasions I’ve been ticketed, and certainly not on the one occasion where I was actually arrested (and later cleared of the charge).  Nor did it spare me being treated with extreme suspicion by a detective I called in a more recent involvement while simply inquiring why I’d missed a policeman at my door.  He’d been carrying a subpoena for testimony from me concerning an incident a week earlier where I helped an older man who was being assaulted by a street thug near my apartment.  Suffice it to say that with these experiences, I haven’t been terribly surprised at hearing about a number of incidents over the past year (or two) where pepper spray, batons and, most recently, tasers have been employed with a dubious level of provocation by those whom the media affectionately names "suspects".

But as we see in this report from Associated Press (courtesy of Yahoo!), questions are starting to be asked about police methods and practices from even relatively police-friendly media.  Practices that likely date back to the dawn of policing.  Technology, increasingly, is now frequently plays a key role in catching police in the act of being abusive with their powers.  Many police advocates are reacting with some disdain to this, seeing anything that makes the beat cop’s job harder as just another impediment to "getting the bad guys".  But on the other side of the equation, such critics forget that there really are innocent people – like me (and therefore you, eventually) – getting their rights and liberties trampled upon.  That we’re seeing justice undone all the time by those who’ve sworn to uphold it; and that these aren’t isolated incidents best characterized as "far and few in between".  And that none of this behaviour is contributing to making our streets or property safer.  Certainly, it’s not helping get or even hinder the bad guys.

Not even just a little bit.

Behind the pepper spray, holding that baton or taser, under that navy blue hat with the shield emblazoned upon it is a human being.  A human being that is oh so capable of making mistakes.  No matter how wonderfully discriminating the recruitment process is, despite the fact most cops are great people doing a difficult job, there are going to be people brought onto the force who are going to get into situations they sometimes wont’ be able to entirely control.  And they’ll screw up.  In the Associated Press (AP) article cited above, the reporters are very un-journalistically falling all over themselves to point out for the viewer what the video might not be showing us.  And yet, the officer’s actions really speak for themselves – and even the policeman’s would-be apologists have to acknowledge that police are and need to be held to a much higher standard than the average person in a similar situation.  A big reason for this is because of all those extra powers the officer has; powers that can really screw up an innocent person’s life, if abused.  To boot, the courts will almost always take the testimony of a police officer over that of any other individual – including the accused – on the assumption that the officer will act professionally in the interests of justice rather than veer toward vigilantism.  In many ways, when a cop gets into a conflict with an ordinary person, the odds are stacked very heavily against that person getting anything more than token due process no matter what the cop did wrong.  This system has worked fine up until now; but with the ability of every individual on the street to take footage of police all the time – one of two things needs to happen: either public expectations about the police change, or the police need to adjust traditional behaviour to  conform with the law, no matter how badly their day went.  Or some combination of both.

Some systemic processes in the courtroom can’t be changed easily – taking the cop’s word over contradictory testimony by an accused without corroborating evidence, for example.  But we need to not put our heads in the sand and hold evidence collected by cell phone video or other such means suspect before the behaviour of police.  The cell phone camera isn’t lying; that you can be sure of.  So if the officer presents a version of events that differs with that presented by technology – we need to accept it.  In the AP story, the journalists are leading the viewers’ opinions by raising doubts about what happened before the video was taken, or after.  That’s not something they do when covering other kinds of stories – and in almost any other context, a journalist would be criticized heavily by his/her peers for injecting editorial or conjecture like that.  What about the teacher who’s accused of "touching" a student inappropriately?  Does he get that kind of preamble?  What about the soldier accused of shooting an unarmed demonstrator?  If we see video captures of such events, we tend to accept the evidence at face value (and perhaps we shouldn’t).  But there’s a special consideration being given police on this issue – and it’s partly the desire to protect the institution of policing from the kind of criticism that might harm confidence in it and law and order along with it.  But unless we all toss our mobile phones in the garbage, that strategy is doomed to fail.

Questions like whether should the officer be fired (as the boy’s mom in the AP  piece suggested) deserve an answer too.  "Probably not" is mine.  Although the boy’s mother points out she’d be fired from her job (presumably not in policing) were she to act that way, we can and should afford a degree of tolerance for police needing to think on their feet quickly and not always get it right.  Police aren’t merchants and the public aren’t customers, so they don’t really need to behave the same way as those whose relationships with the public are primarily commercial. Being human, we need to hold police to a higher standard in many resects, but mistakes of that sort probably shouldn’t cost an officer his livelihood either.  Somewhere between the new reality cultivated by technology which catches a cop having a bad day and a dogmatic assumption that a person in-uniform is presumed to flawlessly walk that thin blue line is a happy medium where justice is done, the law is upheld and a lot fewer innocent people end up with fines, embarrassment, arrest, jail time or even worse – like accidental death from a taser in an airport for the crime of not speaking English.

Change won’t come easy to policing, I don’t think.  I used to be a security guard at a core area mall in my home city during my 1st year of university.  It was challenging, and rewarding in some respects – but really didn’t pay well.  In the end, programming was far closer to ‘my thing’, but I had to work with police and got some great insight into how they work.  There were even a few mistakes I made where they backed me up, probably not all unlike a street gang looks after its own.  And there’s a whole mentality borne of circumstance behind that.  It’s flawed, certainly.  It’s human too.  Sometimes, it’s even necessary.  And that’s why whatever change happens needs to be thought through carefully with the realization that there’s a difference between the way things look on paper and how they are in practice.  But if police don’t adapt willingly, the consequences will be a lot more distrust between the force and those whom they serve and protect.  Careers will be needlessly ruined and reputations forever tarnished.  Hopefully, eyes are opened to the change that is already here and we’ll see fewer and fewer stories like this one as time goes on.

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