Second in a series of columns inspired by reader requests
Brawls, shootouts and car chases make for good television. Whether we are watching fictional cops portrayed by Hollywood actors or reality TV with real police officers on the job, speed and violence make for good ratings.
In most cases, we are also rooting for the cops. That is because when you watch a scene from one of these shows you are fully aware of the background story, and this contextual basis allows you to comprehend the subsequent actions of the cops as well as the bad guys.
That is not the case for the latest phenomenon: police incidents captured on cell phone cameras.
There are a proliferation of such videos being posted to Internet sites. Many of these purport to be examples of overly aggressive cops, including one sent to me by a reader who suggested the topic of police abuse on videos. Thank you reader (Yid), but the problem with this video, other than the fact that it is so far removed from the action that there is literally no visual basis for judgment on anything, is that it lacks context.
Rather than break this video down, I’ll use a scenario to make my point (cops love scenarios).
Imagine you are watching a “Cops” episode. The officer working with the cameraman is in a car chase following a suspect in a drive-by shooting. The chase ends in a crash, injuring two officers, and the suspect flees on foot. Two cops catch up to him in a park filled with people, many of whom begin filming the incident. As the suspect runs the police shoot him with a Taser, but the prongs don’t penetrate his heavy coat. A second attempt at Tasering also fails to penetrate clothing. The cops tackle him and in the struggle the suspect catches one in the groin with a kick. Four cops are eventually needed to hold the suspect down without further injury to anyone, and he is led off in handcuffs.
Watching this conclusion you are satisfied that the bad guy didn’t get away (at least I hope you are).
However, the teenager filming this imaginary incident catches only the following: four cops chase one guy into the park, Taser him twice and then jump up and down on him. The only sound is that of the teen filming, who can be heard saying, “Why do they need four cops to catch one guy? Why do they keep tasering him? Why are they grabbing his legs and pinning him to the ground?” The next day that video has 10,000 hits on Youtube and the police chief is responding to demands that the rogue cops be fired.
Far fetched? Absolutely not.
By no means am I suggesting that police officers are never rude, never get carried away, never lose their temper and throw one blow too many. That would be expecting too much from cops who are, after all, only human. When this occurs police officers should, and usually do, receive punishment above and beyond that of the average citizen.
I take exception, however, when videos are viewed without a contextual background. It is unfair to take a few seconds of action at face value when there are other angles, contributing factors and a great deal of background that would change the entire context of the incident.
One such example of this hubris was exhibited, I’m sorry to say, by my favorite columnist Leonard Pitts. In an article attacking cops for taking exception to citizens filming police action, he stamps us all with the label of hypocrite. Although I am a huge fan of Pitts’ craftsmanship and his championing of the impoverished, I consider it prejudicial to label individuals simply on the basis of their skin color, gender preference or, yes, even their profession.
Do I have a problem with a citizen videotaping me while on the job? Yes, but my displeasure is probably no greater than the citizen who goes live on my police car video whenever I hit my lights. So you may take the video, keep it if it has no evidentiary value, and post it on Youtube.
But please remember–that video is only one small piece of reality.