Would A Police Body Camera Have Held Officer Slager Accountable For Killing Walter Scott?

Domestic, Political Cartoons, Writing

Police Cams.tif

A cellphone video of a South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back prompted national outrage and criminal charges against the officer. The event has increased the calls for police to wear body cameras in their interactions with the public.

But would a police-worn body camera have held Officer Michael Slager accountable for killing Walter Scott?

There is a growing movement to outfit police officers with body cameras that can record their interactions with the public. Calls have been made for the cameras by the parents of Michael Brown, and by many police chiefs across the nation. President Obama proposed getting 50,000 body cameras to police stations nationwide.

The White House quotes a study conducted in Rialto, California, that found a 60 percent drop in use of force and an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers after the introduction of body cameras. In San Diego, according to a report released by the city, complaints and use of personal body force incidents decreased by about 40 percent and 45 percent.

However, a recent Fusion investigation found that in two of the five cities studied, the introduction of police-worn body cameras showed little effect. Fusion also found that the footage is generally used for the benefit of the police officer, rather than citizens issuing complaints.

This surprised me at first, but then I took at a look at the companies that make these cameras. Benefiting cops is certainly how the body cameras are marketed.

The companies that make the cameras pitch them as tools to protect police officers against erroneous claims. In marketing materials for body cameras made by Taser, the company writes, “When your honor is on the line, don’t let a 3-second cell phone clip define you.”

With the cameras and the rules that govern their use in control of the police, you see many of the problems that you might expect. Officers almost always control the record button, so there is no guarantee that any incident will even be caught on footage. If it is recorded, problems often still arise. Radley Balko, a journalist who covers civil liberties and criminal justice, highlighted how San Diego Police Department will not release any footage it considers to be part of an investigation. And too often, the footage is claimed to be unavailable.

Balko wrote in August: “There have been too many examples in which an officer has “forgotten” to turn on a camera, a camera has coincidentally malfunctioned at a critical time, or video has gone missing.”

For these reasons, a body camera video of the killing of Walter Scott would likely have been kept out of the public’s eye. Body cameras have definite potential to create a record of critical interactions between police and citizens. But until there are strict rules governing their use and impartial oversight of the recorded footage, using cell phone cameras might still be necessary for citizens to hold police accountable.

Further Reading:

Cops Hate Being Filmed. So Why Are They OK With Body Cameras? – The Nation

Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All – ACLU

How to Achieve Peace in the Middle East (Some good news and some bad news)

International, Political Cartoons, Writing

Peace in the Middle East

Will the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal be good for the region?

Most events are at once good news and bad news. Every action that takes place in such a complex environment invariably causes a chain reaction of mostly unpredictable consequences. The only choice that leaders have is to set in motion a plan that seems like it has the best chance at not becoming a total catastrophe.

The Iran-U.S. nuclear deal, if it goes through, will have far-reaching and ambiguous effects on the region. A well-executed deal could suspend Iran’s nuclear weapons program, deescalate a decades-old cold war between U.S. and Iran, and provide relief to millions of Iranians struggling with a crippled economy. A deal could also allow the Iranian government to double down on its support for the Assad regime in Syria, which is currently dropping barrel-bombs on its citizens. The deal could strain ties between the U.S. and its longtime allies in the Persian Gulf like Saudi Arabia. A deal could have effects on the price of oil, as well as Russia’s economy and its government’s behavior.

While the sum of the effects will be incalculable, engaging with Iran does create more opportunities to effectively deal with the very pressing problems that exist in the region — not to mention the ones that will inevitably come up.  For now, it’s impossible to say if the framework for the U.S.-Iran deal is good news or bad news, but I’d risk that as a guess for moving forward, it’s as good as any.

Building the National Security Apparatus

Domestic, Political Cartoons

National Security Apparatus

President Obama seems committed to rolling back the barefaced global elements of the “War on Terror,” but my worry is this will only quicken the assembly of the shadowy and unaccountable domestic security apparatus.

The troubling revelation of what many Americans already suspected – that the U.S. government has been amassing records of our personal communications and information on an incomprehensibly large scale – was met with outrage by some and resigned indifference on the part of most. I noticed three common arguments used to justify apathy on the matter.

1. Many Americans immediately suggested that data collection is fine because most people willingly share some personal information on social networks. Even some respected cartoonists seemed to be swinging for the government by blaming the snooping on American’s social media habits (“They’re just asking for it!”) 2. Additionally, many citizens, particularly the older generation, have suggested that if you’re writing something online, even on a private email, you should consider it public. 3. Maybe the most common display of dispassion is the line “I’m not a terrorist and I don’t have anything to hide, and if it catches terrorists it makes us safer.”

These three retorts are self-centered and for the most part, irrelevant arguments. The issue at hand is not that Big Brother is personally reading and analyzing all of your boring day-to-day interactions. The looming trouble is hiding in the colossal, permanent infrastructure constructed to grant the government limitless power and leverage over any individual or group it considers a threatening. Regardless of whether Americans share too much, there is an important difference between voluntarily sharing what brands you like with Facebook, and the state having the authority to pull records of any private conversation or interaction that may be able to use against you. The related recommendation that when we talk or act online – now the primary venue for many of our interactions – we should behave as though we’re under government surveillance strikes me as unacceptable for a country that prides itself on its commitment to civil liberties.

On the third point: Very few, if any, people self-identify as a terrorist. It’s the kind of thing we think “we know when we see,” but the label itself eludes any agreed upon definition and is almost exclusively used to subjectively demonize and delegitimize. The vagueness of the term “terrorist” and phrase “threat to national security” allows the government a lot of wiggle-room when it wants to use the sprawling counter-terrorism apparatus to target self-and-dictionary-defined whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Similarly, it has been well documented by the Center for Media and Democracy that Homeland Security, often through the facilities of local and regional intelligence “fusion centers,” worked in concert with banks to spy on Occupy protesters calling for economic equality, greater representation, and the most threatening of all terrorist demands: transparency in our democratic process. (I recommend this summary of the government’s Occupy surveillance program.)

President Barack Obama seems committed to rolling back the barefaced global elements of the “War on Terror,” but my worry is this will only quicken the assembly of the shadowy and unaccountable domestic security apparatus. I only learned about the existence of the “fusion centers” when, as I was driving in a homeland-security-reinforced downtown Boston the week of the Marathon bombing, I was handed a piece of paper with grainy images of the Tsarnaev brothers under a banner header that read “Boston Regional Intelligence Center,” our local fusion center. When a Senate committee studied these intelligence centers, it found that:

“Fusion centers forwarded ‘intelligence’ of uneven quality —oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”

In addition to the glaring and unaccountable violation of rights -and I’m not even attempting to address the monetary cost associated- the committee also stated that in the 13 months that it studied the 70+ fusion centers nationwide, it “could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”  

The issue at hand is the sprawl of a security state with a declared mandate too narrow to justify its own colossal existence. Evidence suggests that the FBI is essentially encouraging would-be terrorists, simply to arrest them. This seems like a gross misuse of resources in a country that has no shortage of addressable problems to tackle. To me, there’s little difference between the threat posed by a lunatic who bombs a marathon finish line and the threat posed by a lunatic who shoots children in an elementary school, except that one justifies the establishment of an ubiquitous security apparatus unprecedented in size and scope. And in an effort to prevent the undetectable, Americans are accepting the erosion of rights inherent in such a security state, while being afforded none of the benefits.