THE POLICE STATE
The week of December 7, 2014
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The unlikely allies of the cop-watch movement

By Patrick Howell O'Neill

When George Holliday pressed the record button, the world changed.

Awakened past midnight by the sound of police sirens and helicopters on March 5, 1991, Holliday peaked out from his balcony and captured on his new Sony camcorder a group of Los Angeles police officers breaking Rodney King’s bones with batons and boots while he writhed in pain.

When Holliday gave the tape to local news station KLTV, the resulting outage over the officers’ acquittals sparked the most violent and deadly riots in modern American history. The footage proved the power of police brutality videos and inspired generations of cop watchers to press record. A movement that had only just begun to formally organize one year earlier in Berkeley, Calif., was starting to change the way journalism worked, putting citizens at the forefront.

Over the years, as police departments continued to clash with American citizens across the country, the movement migrated online. Expensive camcorders became cheaper smartphones. Television news gave way to a more democratic YouTube. Sites like the Free Thought Project, Cop Block, and Copwatch organized and rallied supporters on Facebook and beyond. Now anyone can broadcast anything to almost the entire world, and seemingly not a day passes without a new video of police using excessive force or questionable tactics going viral.

The cop-watch movement, designed at first to protect citizens from abusive patrolmen, has been found to also protect the cops themselves from bogus complaints.

But the blind spots remain enormous. In Holliday’s video—what some consider the first viral video—the viewer drops right into the middle of the beating, leaving them to wonder what could have led to such brutality.

It’s virtually impossible for random strangers, or even diligent watchdogs, to record an entire event. While some video may be better than none, much of the story is left untold. Investigations still often rely on the he-said, she-said of cops versus civilians, leaving us with a foot firmly in square one.

That’s why an unlikely ally has entered the fray of the cop-watch movement—in action if not in name—to finally begin to fill in the most crucial blind spots: the police.

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The context needed in Ferguson

When Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in August, no one pressed record until Brown was already bloodied on the asphalt.

The results of his death were violent riots, vocal distrust, and outright hostility between the predominantly black city and its mostly white police force. The outpouring of grief and rage may have been sparked by this particular incident, but the relationship between Ferguson’s police and its people has been unbalanced since well before Brown died. The inequities extend from the department’s racial makeup to data showing the cops disproportionately target, search, and arrest black people even when white people are found with contraband more often.

In the weeks following the killing, a California-based group called We Copwatch traveled to Ferguson to equip the residents of the Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown died, with 110 video cameras to watch and record police activity in the wake of the riots. 

Those cameras were meant to complement the 50 body cameras Ferguson officers were given by two private companies about two weeks after Brown’s death. Other departments in the region quickly approved thousands of dollars’ worth of wearable cameras as well.

“They are really enjoying them,” Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They are trying to get used to using them.”

For most of the previous decade, the country’s biggest police departments were engaged in heated battles both in the courts and on the streets over the legality of videotaping cops. Cop-watch groups were deemed “extremists” in internal documents by the New York Police Department, and the American Civil Liberties Union went to court repeatedly to defend the right to record on-duty officers.

Today, the battle has been turned on its head. Increasingly, police want cameras running. The cop-watch movement, designed at first to protect citizens from abusive patrolmen, has been found to also protect the cops themselves from bogus complaints from civilians—not unlike the Russian dash cam culture that emerged to protect drivers from false insurance claims. Over 5,000 police departments around United States now have cop-camera programs, and similar programs are proliferating around the world.

Other cops “ask, ‘Oh, how do you like Big Brother?’” Laurel, Va., officer Matt Jordan recently told the Washington Post. “But I don’t have a problem with it. I like it.”

While many full departments don’t yet require wearing cameras, some individual police officers around the country buy their own cameras to use on the job. The conversation has taken center stage in the police community.

“I have worn one for years,” one anonymous officer, self-described as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, wrote on Reddit, which has a substantial police community. “It’s proven the guilt of suspects 100 percent of the time and the D.A. loves it. Every complaint has been found baseless and made-up, or they were mad they got caught and thought making a complaint would help them. No police officer should go without wearing a camera.”

President Obama signed an executive order last week offering federal funding for 50,000 police cameras around the country.

Less than a week after Brown’s death in Ferguson, an Oakland cop was cleared of accusations of racism because he wore a body camera that recorded the entirety of an incident in which he stopped, questioned, and ultimately released a man who had entered an unlocked fire department. (Within two minutes, the man produced identification showing he was a firefighter, and the police officer apologized and let him go.)

“The video footage allows the community to see the events as they occurred,” Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said in a statement following the incident. “The officers clearly acted within policy. We continue to be committed to transparency.”

There’s little doubt of the potential upside of on-body cameras. A year-long experiment by the Police Foundation showed that the use of body cameras “was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers.” In Rialto, Calif., complaints against cops dropped by 88 percent and incidents of police force against civilians fell by 60 percent.

With civilians and police officers joining the cop-watch movement, politicians are increasingly voicing their support as well.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has called for police to use video cameras if they want hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. Missouri State Rep. Courtney Curtis said that audio or video recording could have “[provided] the rest of the information” on exactly what happened before the shooting death of Brown.

Likewise, Hawthorne, Calif., Mayor Chris Brown said he supports cop cams because he is “simply not willing to gamble with a single life, or the wrongful accusation of upstanding officers.” In New York City, the country’s largest police force is already testing two types of cameras in some of the city’s most crime-heavy neighborhoods, and the city of Denver aims to equip all of its patrol and traffic officers with body cameras in 2015, at a cost of about $1.5 million.

On the national level, President Obama signed an executive order last week offering federal funding for 50,000 police cameras around the country. The president’s plan calls for a three-year, $263 million spending package, around 29 percent of which would be used on the cameras.

“Citizens should know officers are being held accountable,” Denver Police Chief Robert White told the Denver Post. “The only officers who would have a problem with body cameras are bad officers.”

The beauty of on-body cameras is that (ideally) both officers and civilians can be held accountable. Cameras can deliver a dose of objective reality where it’s badly needed, helping remove subjective hearsay from the equation.

“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Rialto, Calif., Police Chief William Farrar told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

The path forward

For the second night in a row, thousands of demonstrators took over Times Square in New York City on Thursday to protest against the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man killed by “compression of neck” after a confrontation with a group of cops.

The protesters sat down in the streets and chanted “Black lives matter!”—until they were arrested by police on charges of disrupting vehicular traffic. As they were dragged off, a crowd of thousands cheered them on.

The beauty of on-body cameras is that (ideally) both officers and civil

Next to me, an incensed black man wondered aloud, “OK, we’re chanting, now what? What comes next?”

Unlike the Michael Brown case, there’s virtually no ambiguity surrounding Eric Garner’s death. A bystander took video of the entire incident, showing how cops jumped on Garner, shoving his chest, neck, and face to the ground. When he was gasping out pleas of “I can’t breathe” as his last words, his face was shoved harder into the concrete.

A grand jury last week declined to indict any police officer for Garner’s death. Now, activists are questioning what good police cameras do if nothing happens even when clear video evidence exists. At the subsequent protests, shaken demonstrators constantly questioned what real change they could effect in the world.

This particular frustration felt in the streets of New York is easy to understand, but it might also be vastly underestimating the momentum the protesters themselves already have.

Eric Garner never would have made global headlines if not for the fact that a camera recorded his death. The president wouldn’t have launched a federal investigation into the incident, the New York governor wouldn’t have promised reform, and the city’s mayor wouldn’t have said the event is “a call to action.” 

Police brutality activists felt they lost another heartbreaking battle when a Staten Island grand jury said no criminal charges would be brought in the death of Eric Garner. But now their war is the center of the national conversation.

Cop cams aren’t perfect. There are major problems that have to be solved—including cost, privacy, what happens when officers themselves tamper with recording equipment, and many deeper issues within police culture—but the battle has shifted in fundamental ways.

More cameras can slowly but surely change the way Americans think about police and the momentum to put cams on cops is greater than ever. 

It’s not just cop versus watcher anymore.

Illustrations by J. Longo