Cops, Videos, Privacy: My comments.

The police have a lot of pow­er: they decide who to pur­sue, who to arrest and who to charge.  At that point, it becomes a mat­ter for the courts (most of the time — cops as judge and jury is anoth­er rant).  Recent­ly, there’s been a lot of news con­cern­ing the police in the US using out-of-date laws to harass cit­i­zens who have tak­en videos of police action.  This is direct­ly cou­pled with videos that have put bad cops behind bars.

Get this out of the way first: I have no prob­lem with the police and the func­tion of the police.  I also strong­ly believe that the major­i­ty of the police are upstand­ing peo­ple who do a very dif­fi­cult and risky job to the best of their abil­i­ties.  But the very essence of being a the police is exer­cis­ing the pow­er of the state to pro­tect its cit­i­zens from each oth­er through per­sua­sion, use of force and final­ly use of dead­ly force or denial of lib­er­ty.  Pow­er cor­rupts and absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolute­ly: The police are peo­ple and peo­ple are cor­rupt­ed by power.

This is to say, there exists bad cops and fur­ther­more, cops are peo­ple, which means cops will have bad days and do bad things.  The impor­tant point here in rela­tion to my last para­graph is that bad cops and good cops on bad days can have pro­found neg­a­tive affects on soci­ety — their abuse of their pow­er ampli­fies the affect of their actions.

The Police are pub­lic fig­ures.  They per­form a pub­lic duty in a pub­lic set­ting.  As such, they (should) have no expec­ta­tion of pri­va­cy.  A good com­par­i­son would be politi­cians — who’s life of pub­lic ser­vice is so pub­lic as to not have any expec­ta­tion of pri­va­cy for their entire term of office (or, indeed, any­thing the press can dig up con­cern­ing their past).

As pub­lic fig­ures, I believe it to be a fun­da­men­tal right for cit­i­zens to be able to video the police in pub­lic areas.  It might be rea­son­able to insist that cit­i­zens are not endan­ger­ing them­selves and it might also be rea­son­able to insist that they are not ham­per­ing the police in the per­for­mance of their duties, but these are the only two excep­tions I can con­ceive as reasonable.

Police tes­ti­mo­ny is tak­en with extra weight in court.  They are assumed truth­ful unless clear evi­dence is adduced to the con­trary.  Video tak­en by cit­i­zens of police abuse and bru­tal­i­ty has been essen­tial in bring­ing sev­er­al accused police offi­cers to jus­tice and that fact alone jus­ti­fies the wide­spread video tap­ing of police in public.

Just as videos tak­en in Afghanistan and Iraq hor­ri­fied Amer­i­ca as to what its gov­ern­ment was doing over­seas (and thus sparked a much need­ed rethink of their actions), if the pub­lic can­not stom­ach what it’s police are doing, then police behav­ior needs to be changed.  I know the less-than-pub­lic argu­ment is that police do “what needs to be done,” but in a democ­ra­cy we reserve the right to exam­ine what police do and we also reserve the right to give the police dif­fer­ent march­ing orders.

It seems that the fight for this jus­tice is going to con­tin­ue.  My hat is off to the brave (and some­times unlucky) souls that are caught in the jus­tice sys­tem due to police use of inap­pro­pri­ate laws as a scare tac­tic to make peo­ple think twice about hold­ing them to account.

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