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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cops with cameras, or cops on camera? A modest proposal

Via OpenFile, a report that Toronto police are considering the use of body cameras – small digital cameras that can be clipped to an officer's ear, headgear or uniform. Spokesman Mark Pugash casts the idea as something that would contribute to public and officer safety, as well as accountability.

Nebulous and flexible notion, that accountability thing. An official at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wonders how much discretion individual officers would have regarding when the devices are turned on and recording, and wonders how long such recordings would be kept and what they would be used for.

And bluntly, Toronto police haven't exactly distinguished themselves when it comes to accountability. Indeed, the organization, its managers and the leaders of its union have a pretty sorry record of conflict and dysfunction, both internally and with their civilian overseers. If it's a question of reforming an outmoded organizational and occupational culture, one really has to wonder whether body cameras are going to help.

What needs to be looked at is the broader issue of videotaping police, period. Again, reduced to its essence, this is a struggle over narrative. This is all about controlling the story and how it gets told.

Remember Said Jama Jama and Roy Preston? In August 2003, Preston, a lying thug who happened to be wearing a police uniform, hauled off an unprovoked sucker punch on Jama Jama, knocking out a couple of his teeth. Jama Jama was subsequently charged with assaulting police and at one point was even facing the possibility of deportation. The truth only came out because someone happened to videotape the incident. The judge at Preston's assault trial described Preston's conduct as particularly cowardly and reprehensible. After Preston was sentenced – to 30 days, mind – the head of the Toronto police union complained about the media coverage, as if that were the problem.

So, in sum, we have a cowardly abuse of power, a lying asshole cop backed up by his buddies, and a failed cover-up. Does anyone seriously think things would have turned out this way if someone hadn't been there with a video camera?

And then there's Robert Dziekanski. It seems that the RCMP tried to seize the infamous video. Can't really blame them for trying. But again, if someone hadn't been there to tape it, those taser-happy SOBs would have been able to tell their lies and get away with it. The Braidwood Inquiry found that the four cops who tasered Robert Dziekanski to death were not justified in using the taser and that they deliberately misrepresented their actions. In other words, they zapped the poor guy for no reason and then lied about it. I've written previously about the futility of waiting for a meaningful institutional response, but at least in the wake of the inquiry, the cops who killed Robert Dziekanski were held up for the public scorn they deserve.

Most recently, from the G20 summit in Toronto, we have more examples of police misconduct than I can count. I've linked to this video before, but particularly instructive is the passage about Lisa Walter's arrest that begins at about the 6:40 mark.

As the video shows, she isn't doing anything except watching and documenting a brutal arrest, but what happens? She gets arrested for “obstructing” and "causing a disturbance." Bullshit charges that probably wouldn't stand up in court, but it's not as if anyone's going to have to answer for laying them in the first place, let alone the disgusting sexist and homophobic treatment she was subjected to afterward. It's not the first time cops have objected to having their actions recorded, either. You can read about it here, here and here. (I'm tempted to pull the old “well, if you've got nothing to hide ... ” shtick on them, but I'll resist the temptation for now.)

So, I have a proposal for Mark Pugash, the Toronto Police, and the suppliers lining up to sell them these cool new toys: Fill your boots. Buy as many of these as you like. Have your fun. But I don't ever want to hear another cop complaining about being videotaped again.


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