Who watches the watchers when they aren’t wearing their lapel cameras? And, what does it matter if the reviewers have no authority?
Those two questions are at the heart of a scandal that’s been raging in New Mexico since federal investigators accused Albuquerque police officers of routinely using excessive force and violating suspects’ civil rights.
Cops in the city are supposed to wear small video cameras on their lapels or helmets to record traffic stops, foot chases, shootouts, and other encounters. The self-surveillance is supposed to deter them from lapsing into brutality. But last week the US Justice Department claimed that crooked officers for years have been flouting the rule to hide their culture of violence.
Days after the Justice Department issued its report, half of Albuquerque's Police Oversight Commission abruptly resigned. In letters to the mayor, the three — Jennifer Barela, Richard Shine, and Jonathan Siegel — explained that the city attorney's determination that the commission has no power over the police department would make the commission pointless.
The Justice Department revelations are now scrambling preconceived notions about video cameras and government eavesdropping, according to Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“You don’t want to increase the police state by using surveillance,” Castro told VICE News. “You want to decrease it by using surveillance.”
The ACLU and others who often decry Big Brother are in favor of using cameras to hold cops accountable for their actions. Police unions that support deploying the most Orwellian technology, meanwhile, are resisting their use.
Those ironies aren’t surprising, said Castro. Cameras have always provided defense attorneys as well as cops with evidence. In fact, when close-circuit television was first widely adopted years ago, video cameras were billed as a way to reduce, not expand, the power of law enforcement. Recall how a bystander’s video of cops beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992 led to riots and, later, reforms in the city’s corrupt and racist police force.
The Albuquerque case illustrates how the counterintuitive view of video surveillance might be gaining currency, said Castro.
In an April 10 letter to Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, US Justice Department officials said the city’s trigger-happy police often neglected to switch on the cameras before reaching for their revolvers. The Justice Department also asserted that in the last four years officers killed 23 people and wounded 14 others in incidents that were case studies in irresponsibility.
“A majority of these shootings were unconstitutional,” said the letter. “Police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others.”
The report hit a nerve. Last month, two Albuquerque cops gunned down a homeless, mentally ill man as he apparently was about to surrender after a four-hour standoff in the foothills on the outskirts of the city. The 38-year-old had been camping illegally. Caught on a helmet camera worn by one of the officers — and released by the city, admirably, in the interests of transparency — the tragic shooting prompted massive demonstrations against police and calls for reforms.
The primary issue is not whether cameras can keep tabs on cops but rather how the Albuquerque police department enforces its rules and safeguards video footage, said Castro. He suggested police in the future should have access to videos but not have permission to edit them. Instead, internal affairs or a third-party watchdog might keep them in an archive where they could be available to the public, including alleged victims of police brutality.
“Surveillance can be very beneficial,” said Castro. “When it’s not abused, we’re better off with it than without it.”
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