Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Roll the tape

You know the old saw about how a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, this dramatic thing started happening a couple of decades ago.

People got video cameras and began taping stuff happening around them. The next thing you know, there's Rodney King getting the shit beaten out of him by the Los Angeles police right there on your television.

Fast forward, if you'll excuse the expression, a couple of years and video cameras started showing up in police stations. So you saw the police sexually assaulting a young woman in the Elkhart police station.

And with cameras in police cars, especially with the audio, just last week you might have seen the police planting drugs on someone and having the dog attack him. You might, also, have seen police in Florida planning to pin a DUI on a woman for an accident they caused.

And because of cameras in convenience stores attached to gas stations, we get to see Philadelphia police assaulting and then arresting a woman after the son of one of the officers rear-ended her car.

None of this is new. What's new is just how much of it there is. And that we get to see it for ourselves.

And just how dumb the cops are to do all this stuff while the tape is rolling. Or maybe they're not so dumb. Maybe it's an ingrained part of their culture, of the thin blue line, to accept that these things happen and to recognize that there aren't likely to be repercussions.

The truth is that police brutality, even outright criminality, is rarely punished with more than a slap on the wrist, if that. That woman who was beaten and arrested in the gas station. Officers asked the station owner to destroy the tape. He didn't. Internal affairs concluded they did nothing wrong.


Juries believe what police say on the witness stand even when it's a lie. So do judges, who really do know better. It's called "testilying," and however much we all disapprove, the system tolerates at least some degree of it.

Years ago, I had a drug case. Two cars were driving on the Ohio Turnpike. It was a January afternoon. A highway patrol trooper, who testified that she was driving west at 65 miles per hour in the far right lane, noticed that the drivers of two cars going east, in the far lanes on their side of the road, also going about 65 miles an hour, had similar facial features. Yes, that's right. Across four lanes of traffic, a grass medial strip that was significantly wider than the length of a police car. Windows closed. Similar facial features.

Try it yourself next time you're on the highway. Bet you can't do it.

Anyway, she got suspicious. She found an excuse to stop one of the cars and radioed for another trooper to stop the other. His excuse for stopping the car: It was following too closely a semi that was driving faster than the car. Wait, isn't there something about the laws of physics here?

The judge believed the troopers. Or said she did.

Of course, there wasn't any video.

Note: I've been saving these videos for a couple of weeks and can't frankly, tell you where I found most of them. But my sources include: Simple Justice, Jonathan Turley, Crime and Federalism, and Criminal Defense. If I forgot someone, or lost track, I apologize.


  1. I am a prosecutor and I love cameras in the cars. Talk about no dispute about what happened in a stop in the field. The number of defendants who lie about police misconduct has gone down quite a bit as well. Its all well and good to laugh about what a few idiots do, but I wonder if we lawyers would like a camera on us every waking minute at work- not just in the courtroom.

  2. Nope. We wouldn't. I've been arguing for years against the surveillance society where everyone is continually being monitored - on cameras and otherwise. We have a right to go about our business, and it's mostly nobody's business where and when we're going about.

    By the same token, and just as we need to make a record of what we do in court, cameras in the cars are a fundamentally good idea. They help keep everyone honest. (Working cameras, that is. I can't tell you how often I've learned that the camera broke or the tape screwed up or somehow the microphone got turned off at the critical moment.)

    But not just in cars, please. During interrogations, too. I don't know what your jurisdiction does, heck, I don't know what your jurisdiction is, but I hope you endorse taping there, too. And you might push your buddies at the FBI to endorse taping interrogations as a matter of routine, not just when they get special permission from the agent in charge.