Last week a federal grand jury indicted officer Michael Slager, who shot and killed Walter Scott in South Carolina, on several charges including violating civil rights laws. During that same week, FBI director James Comey came out with more shocking statements claiming videos are somehow stifling police officers from doing their job and may lead to homicide rates and crime increasing. If Walter Scott’s tragic death were not caught on videotape, officer Slager likely would have never been charged and his family may have never known the truth. Reducing crime and keeping communities safe is what we all want, but if we are to ever separate good cops from the bad ones and reform policing in this country, we must push for more videotaped evidence and transparency (as a start), and not blame videos. New technology should be embraced instead of scapegoated.
While homicide rates have increased in certain places, in cities like New York and many others, they have gone down. There is no conclusive evidence as to what is either causing or decreasing these rates, and definitely no evidence of a so-called ‘Ferguson effect’. For the director of the FBI to even insinuate that such a thing exists is irresponsible, dangerous and unacceptable. Secondly, videotaping police misconduct is adding to the enforcement of law, not taking away from it because police misconduct is in fact a crime. How can anyone say that citizens should not videotape crime and it be used against alleged criminals? When security and surveillance cameras are everywhere in order to catch the bad guys, we should utilize cell phone videos to do the same—even if those bad guys happen to be wearing a police uniform.
As one that has spent decades fighting police brutality, I can say that we have made some progress, but much work remains before us and we must embrace methods that will help us achieve those goals, not hinder them. With my organization, National Action Network, we dealt with police brutality cases for decades from Rodney King and Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and more. I can tell you firsthand how difficult it was to struggle to win some of those cases (and lose some) because there was no videotaped evidence. New technology has opened the eyes of many in the general public that police brutality is real, and that we were raising these issues because we are anti-bad cop, not anti-police.
The question now that has given further cause to pause is whether the criminal justice system will adjust to new technology as the public has. Or will we continue to see unfounded theories and fear mongering perpetuated from top officials like Comey? As the director of the FBI, he should be more careful not to casually throw about unfounded ideas and misinformation. A recent New York Times piece on this subject included comments from James O. Pasco Jr., the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, who also disagrees with Comey. They quoted him as stating the following:
“He (Comey) ought to stick to what he knows. He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
I couldn’t agree more. Our police officers do tremendous work day in and day out; everyone recognizes that. But there are those that abuse their power and don’t follow the law themselves that must be held accountable. Why in the world would we want to eliminate evidence that we can view with our own eyes? Claiming cops aren’t doing their job is insulting to the brave men and women that put their lives on the line daily. And trying to convince the public that videotaped evidence isn’t necessary is simply outrageous and reckless.
The tenure of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch as Attorneys General gives us hope that some in the criminal justice hierarchy are working diligently to reform the system for the betterment of society. But the statements of Comey gives us much concern. Unlike cases in the past, we can now often say: “let’s go to the tape”. It’s one thing to refute someone’s words or their side of the story, but it’s much more difficult to do so when there is video evidence. Body cameras, cell phone videos, etc. are the first steps towards better policing and safety for both officers and the communities they serve. If someone is bad mouthing the fact that citizens are videotaping incidents, maybe we need to ask what his/her motives are.
In the meantime, keep filming.