As a pilot program in Rialto, California, reveals, when cops film all their interactions with civilians and suspects, complaints against officers go down. So why aren't more departments around the country doing this?
Photo via Flickr user Oakley Originals
For the past 12 months, police officers in Rialto, California, have been wearing cameras while on duty as part of a pilot program. It’s expensive to mount a camera on every uniformed cop, but the idea is that by recording all the interactions between officers and civilians and suspects, cops will behave better and complaints against the department will be quickly resolved—if someone makes a claim about being mistreated, it can be easily proved or disproved by a look at the tape. The experiment seems to be going well, and starting September 1, all 66 uniformed officers in Rialto will wear them. Complaints against the department have gone down 88 percent over the course of the year-long study while the use of force by officers declined by more than half, implying that cameras really do benefit both police and civilians. Indeed, a New York Daily News article highlighted the case of Rialto cop Randy Peterson, who was cleared of an excessive-force allegation lodged against him by a mentally disturbed man thanks to his body camera.
But not all departments are as forward-thinking as Rialto’s, or as concerned with the future of police accountability. On August 12, when the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy was ruled unconstitutionally racist, the judge pointed to Rialto as an example of how to make cops accountable while ordering the NYPD to institute a similar program. The cops aren’t happy about this, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who generally supports surveillance when it comes to monitoring the civilian population—called the idea “a nightmare.” NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly also sounded dubious, saying that these body cameras have only been tried in much smaller cities than New York (Rialto has about 100,000 people). And it’s true that since these body cameras cost $900 a pop, outfitting all of New York’s 35,000 uniformed officers might prove fiscally impossible.
Cops generally object to being filmed even when it doesn’t cost their departments money. It’s easy to find footage on YouTube of cops objecting to being filmed by civilians—sometimes violently, sometimes with illegal arrests. Websites like Photography Is Not a Crime and Copblock are devoted to filming police, reporting on incidents where cops violate the civil rights of people who try to do so, and encouraging everyone to keep a close eye on law enforcement. You’ll even hear horror stories of people in states with restrictive wiretapping laws like Indiana and Massachusetts facing criminal prosecutions for trying to record the cops. The charges are usually eventually dropped, but the question remains: Why, if they aren’t doing anything wrong, are the police so afraid of being filmed?
Cameras won’t magically cause corrupt or cruel cops to behave better, and if we attached them to every officer in the country there would still be questions about when the cops would be allowed to turn them off and who would have access to the footage. But Rialto’s new project is a hell of a start. It’s a fundamental right to film in public—particularly when the subject of the recording is public servants on the job—and police departments could do themselves a big favor if they start embracing the transparency that body cameras represent.
Now on to this week’s bad cops:
- On July 28, police were sent to the Phoenix, Arizona, home of 44-year-old Michael Ruiz, who had reportedly been acting erratic. Ruiz, who had a history of drug abuse, climbed onto the roof of his apartment complex, and when the cops finally got him down they cuffed him and Tasered him multiple times while yelling, “Stop resisting!” Neighbors who witnessed the confrontation recorded it, and in the video you can see Ruiz’s head repeatedly striking the steps as officers drag him to their cruiser. Ruiz’s father was a 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and he’s demanding an explanation. An autopsy and toxicology report on Ruiz will be forthcoming.
- Police in Beeville, Texas, are complaining that they don’t have enough money for their SWAT team, and are asking for $30,000 from the city to purchase equipment. This is kinda odd because Beeville has a population of 13,000 and hasn’t had a murder since 2005.
- A Sunnyside, Washington, librarian with a habit of filming police got in trouble last month for turning his camera on a SWAT team raiding the home of a suspected laptop thief and supposed gang member. But on Tuesday, cops, prosecutors, and a judge said that 28-year-old Thomas Warren was well within his rights to film the SWAT team. His arrest was a “mistake,” said Sunnyside's deputy police chief, Phil Schenck. Warren is still considering a lawsuit, and won’t stop filming the police.
- On August 22, an Oakland, California, SWAT team evicted a dozen squatters from a building they had lived in for several months. Cops describe the property as being filthy, while the crust punks called the police’s use of force excessive. One said the “fascists” pointed guns at him. Another person was arrested for spitting in a cop’s face. While the the squatters were definitely breaking the law, it’s not clear why they needed to be moved out at gunpoint.
- While the NYPD’s stop and frisk program has gotten a lot of attention lately, Detroit cops have been carrying out similar searches for the past several years. The New York ruling will not change Detroit’s policies, though they may be re-evaluated.
- The mayor and a city council member in Raleigh, North Carolina, are looking into changing a law which prohibits the dispersal of food in city parks without a permit. This comes after an incident last weekend where volunteers from charities were stopped by police from passing out breakfast biscuits to the homeless.
- If you’re trying to understand how the NYPD morphed into a kind of mini CIA, check out New York magazine’s in-depth look at how the department changed after 9/11.
- Over at the Huffington Post, Radley Balko rounded up several cop accounts that point to their disturbing habit to call themselves “warriors” or “soldiers” and compare their job to that of a US soldier in Afghanistan.
- Our Good Cop of the Week award goes to the Leander, Texas, police department, which enrolled their officers in an eight-hour training course on canine aggression after an officer injured a dog while trying to serve a warrant on a wrong house in June. The award comes with an asterisk, however, because the department refuses to pay the dog’s family’s vet bills since, as the police’s legal representative said, “The officer had a legal right to be on the property since he was trying to serve a warrant, even if it was the wrong address." The family plans to file a lawsuit for the cost of those doggy medical bills.
Previously: Stop Tasering Us, Police Bros