Rewriting the Times: Videoing the Police Edition

April 7, 2013, 4:14 pm

There’s an article in the Times business section today about the use of miniature video cameras by police officers in a trial program in Rialto, CA. The article focuses largely on the technology and the way in which it allows police officers to refute false allegations of police misconduct. The expected result of such videoing would be a reduction in complaints about the police, and that’s exactly what happened, with civilian complaints dropping by 88% during the course of the study, from 24 to 3. There’s a story about civilians coming into lodge complaints, being shown the video, and–in the words of the police chief where the first experiment is taking place–”The individuals left the station with basically no other things to say and have never come back.”

There is, of course, another story here, that pokes through the article, but is pretty much ignored: the way in which cameras could reduce police misconduct by making the officers aware that they are being recorded. If police were using force too much, the cameras would likely cause them to restrain themselves. This is exactly what happened:

Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 61. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras during that shift, the study found. And, lest skeptics think that the officers with cameras are selective about which encounters they record, Mr. Farrar noted that those officers who apply force while wearing a camera have always captured the incident on video.

There is no discussion of this issue and after this paragraph nothing that really constitutes a mention, but note that the reduction in the number of incidents involving force (36) was substantially more than the number of complaints that disappeared (21). It suggests–if Rialto is representative–that police officers use force in situations that they themselves think marginal (i.e. wouldn’t necessarily look good on video) in a routine and everyday way.*

The folks carrying out the study clearly pitched it to the police as a way of avoiding false complaints (“[The police chief] said he reminded [his officers] that civilians could use their cellphones to record interactions, ‘so instead of relying on somebody else’s partial picture of what occurred, why not have your own?’ he asked. ‘In this way, you have the real one.’”). That doesn’t mean that the Times has to, or should, use the same framing.

*There’s an alternate explanation: that civilians see the cameras and are less likely to cause altercations because of it, but I don’t find that particularly credible, absent any discussion of the issue at all.

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