Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson, Dash Cams, and the Police State We Built

Meet the $200 tool that could be saving citizens from police
brutality, saving honest cops from false accusations, and
putting citizens at ease.  But there's a catch - the cops don't
want them.  
It's fascinating, twelve hours after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, to read the very strong opinions that people have on the case.  People who don't have the facts (nor do I).  People who aren't medical examiners (nor am I).  People who have never been in a violent encounter themselves (I have).  Visceral cries of "racism" exude from both sides.    And I get it.   Surely (on Officer Wilson's part) there must be a better way to detain a potential suspect than shooting him in the face (12 shots fired and 10 much for that "police are better trained to use guns" argument).

 And for Michael Brown or anyone encountering hostile law enforcement officers, there has to be a better way to respond than punching the officer in the face, backing up, and then charging him head on, as the cop draws his gun and starts throwing bullets around the entire zip code.   What happened beyond those two facts is very much a mystery, because Ferguson, Missouri's Police Department doesn't utilize dashboard cams or body cams - both of which are cheap, very accessible technology that help tell the stories of good cops and good citizens who get into bad situations with bad cops and bad citizens.

And that's what I'd like to examine here.   Our country, personified by the Nixon era but not at all limited to Nixon, has generated and embraced a tome of police-provided "safety" over the last 60 years.   If we are societally afraid of things - narcotics, violent crime, guns, terroristic threats, etc., we simply "ban" such things and give our law enforcement agencies very broad powers to enforce the ban - civil rights be damned.   In our heads, we want to believe that as a result of a "ban," bad things and bad people seem to just evaporate from our daily lives.   And I don't think we're bad for wanting that to be so - for crime, lawlessness, and violence to be preemptively banned from taking place.  That those things may be prevented is a laudable goal, however impossible and fantastical.

Any police officer will tell you that they don't go to work to prevent crimes, but merely solve crimes that have been committed, with a (statistically flawed) hope of discouraging future similar crimes, due to legal consequences incurred by the criminals.   To achieve this fantasy of public safety provided by a police force, we've done many questionable things as a society.  We've incarcerated more citizens than any other nation (per capita) in the history of the world, save Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  We've militarized the police, and we've given them more civil rights (and gun rights) than average citizens.

Perhaps most significantly, we've made "non compliance" with police orders a crime in itself ("failure to comply with a lawful order").  Police officers - even former police officers - are broadly exempted from gun control regulations and other laws, even as those laws would (and should) apply to their personal time and personal lives.  Think I'm off-base? Check out this link, this link, and, oh bother, just Google "Only police should have guns," and you'll retrieve over 46,000,000 individual web pages.     And how many times during the gun debates in recent years have you heard gun control advocates say, "Citizens don't need these guns! Only the police need them!"  Right. Well, perhaps that's the case, but here we are.  Ferguson, Missouri.

If a citizen believes they are in danger, and they shoot another person in public, it is a virtual guarantee that the citizen shooter will stand trial, at least for the minor crime of "illegally discharging a firearm in public," if not for the act of shooting the person.    As Nate Silver's shop reported this week, grand jury indictments of such cases involving private citizens are over 99.99% likely.   That statistic (% indicted) for police officers?  Roughly 1%.    That's right.  To quote President Nixon, "It's legal because I'm the president."  I'm sure that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now let's circle back to body cams and dashboard cams.   Body cams run $200 per officer.  Dashboard cams? $3,000 each.  Ferguson has 18 cruisers, 54 commissioned officers, and a $5.2 million annual budget.  Therefore, getting the Department to upgrade to 2005 technology for the sake of protecting officers from false claims of police corruption and brutality (while protecting citizens from said alleged corruption and brutality)  would cost roughly $75,000 to initiate, and roughly $15,000/year for replacement (assume 20% replacement annually).  That's a one-time cost of 1.4% of the Department's annual budget, and a recurring cost of 0.3% of the Department's annual budget.

It is virtually certain that those two technologies, in combination, would have led to a valid and rapid assessment of what happened between Mr. Brown and Officer Wilson that would have satisfied a large swath of the public, despite the prejudices for judgment on both sides.  The Department would have saved millions of dollars they've since expended in materiel and officer overtime, to say nothing of the civil suit that is nearly inevitable, and which the the Department may in fact lose.   For a one time cost of 1.4% of the budget. 

So why not spend the 1.4%?  Because the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, among thousands of other law enforcement agencies across the country, doesn't believe that they need to be accountable to the public.  They sincerely pursue what taxpayers have conveyed to them as their charge - to mop up what they perceive to be threats to public safety, and to not be asked questions about how they accomplish that, or whether or not their tactics are the most effective in use.

Is this "police tool" really appropriate for our streets?
What crimes will it "prevent?"
America has given our law enforcement agencies a list of quite impossible tasks:  "preventing" gun violence, "stopping" all terrorist attacks, and "ending" the narcotics trade chief among them.  Taxpayers and lawmakers have refused to listen to decades of officer testimony that these things are in fact, unachievable, in a nation of 300 million, with thousands of miles of international borders, and as a result, law enforcement agencies have convinced themselves that they can utilize any and all tools necessary to toward those means, no matter how quixotic the goal may be.  Their decisions are reinforced by grand juries who conclude that police officers on the scene (in many cases, the shooter himself/herself) are the best ones to determine what type of force was appropriate.   This seems really, really bad.

Here locally, the Baltimore City Council unanimously approved a police body-cam bill (that both funds the body cams and requires their use) recently.  It was a bold move that civil rights and law enforcement advocates both strongly approve, especially given BPD's nearly continual payouts for police brutality settlements.  Yet, Mayor Rawlings-Blake (with the support of the Baltimore Police Commissioner) strongly disapproves of the bill, and is not only threatening to veto the bill, but has promised to do so.   The Police Department doesn't seem terribly interested in seeing the daily operations of its officers.   While Baltimore is a major east coast city with big city problems, and BPD is a massive, well-trained and well-funded law enforcement agency, the parallels to the Ferguson Police Department are pretty easy in this case:  "We aren't accountable to You."

It's time to wake up to this widespread reality, and to plan for a different future where the outcome of police-involved shootings are not left to scattered facts, expired camera batteries, and the testimony of whichever party survived the incident.  Maybe we need to admit that laws and the police, while vital to our society,  can't solve all of society's problems. And maybe Americans need to rejoin the human race and honestly tackle some of our most difficult problems and begin to care about each other, ourselves, and our communities in a very deep way, instead of criminalizing all of that which makes us afraid, and incarcerating all those who step onto the wrong side of that fear.


Anonymous said...

Well said, and I encourage readers to return to the first few paragraphs here and just... think about it.

Kirk River Mud said...

Thanks! It's a horrible situation with a horrible outcome (death of a citizen). Everything after that is questions. In a nation of 300 million who all enjoy vast personal rights guaranteed by the Constitution, horrible situations will occasionally occur.

The question then becomes, how do we mediate those bad situations? If one group (be they criminals, cops, the NRA, the ACLU, or whomever) demands that they get to exempt themselves from scrutiny of the written or data record, we almost guarantee that we won't get it right. I don't think that's acceptable - good cops and good citizens should be able to go home to their families at night. Even bad cops and bad citizens should live to see another day - their crimes should see daylight and appropriate punishment.

Adam said...

I like this post, and you bring up very good positions and thoughts. I don't want to get into all of them, I thought I would share a blog post from Lincoln, NE where I'm from. Our Public Safety Directo (long time Police Chief until very recently), is very progressive and maintains a very nice blog. He recently had a good post about the real costs of adding more cameras to police offers - primarily dealing with having a strong system to archive and maintain all that video data, which could potentially become evidence. I would recommend giving it a read: