As much as I admire him, my relationship with Leonard Pitts is…complex.
Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist whose syndicated column appears regularly in the Trib, is a master of the short essay and a champion of many righteous causes.
That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he writes, of course. Our relationship–if you call forking over money to hear him speak at UPS a relationship–has more to do with craft and less to do with ideology.
In last Sunday’s column (11/27), Pitts denounced the infamous police pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis. Others, including myself, have likewise nibbled at that tempting bait. For opinionators such as us, these images were the visual wellsprings from which a fountain of discussion flowed (though Pitts would have used a better metaphor and charged by the word).
But Pitts didn’t stop there. The main thrust of this piece was that police officers shoud stop confiscating video devices of citizens, and citizens should take a lot more video. His evident distrust of police has been an oft revisited theme in his columns, and this one shows a similar slant: “Police after all, are prone to the same instinct to close ranks and cover nether regions as anyone else.”
Though I take exception to Pitts’ comment, my disagreement does not end there.
On many occasions I have watched bystanders at traumatic scenes yank out their phones and start recording the action. Believe it or not, most of my colleagues aren’t concerned about turning on the news after work and seeing their faces on the screen. Remaining objective is the key to a long career, a fact we are told when hired and reminded of during every training scenario.
So the professional issue is, as even Pitts admits, rather moot.
There are problems, however. For one, Washington state requires two party consent to recordings. This is the reason for an advisement, “You’re being audio and video recorded” when a person is contacted by a police officer with a car camera. The camera is there for evidentiary reasons, to be sure, but it does not help the cop who oversteps his or her boundaries.
Video also has the nasty habit of not telling the entire story. It is extremely important for police officers to recognize the shortcomings in our visual input. Two video clips come to mind. The first shows a group of people tossing a ball and the viewer is asked to count the number of tosses. After counting, the video is replayed in slow motion and the result is that only one or two people out of ten noticed a man in a gorilla suit walk through the group.
The second video shows a short clip of a subject being assaulted. After a brief discussion of this apparent crime, the video is aired at length, and new camera angles are added. The end result? The unexplainable, horrendous action compiled into a five second video burst was suddenly an easily justifiable and plausible outcome.
None of this is meant to discredit video, which can be an excellent tool in many situations. Professional sports has already placed a great deal of trust, not to mention capital, into video replays. But in Pitts’ scenarios, there are rarely any high definition cameras, operated by technical professionals, grabbing all the action from multiple angles. Instead, the videos involved in most of the widely viewed scenes involving protesters, street crime or police activity involve hand held phones. This amounts to one camera angle, one viewpoint and an unspecific time frame.
Without a fair and reasoned approach, it is far too easy to manipulate public perception with video, whether from the camera of a patrol car or the cellphone of a protester. At its best it can provide an undeniable insight to one component of an event, while at worst it may provide an unfair portrayal of everyone involved. This idea is lost in the heady rush of Pitts’ eloquent and passionate appeal.
But for those who heed Pitts’ call to keep the video pressure on police, just use some common sense. Be sensitive to barriers and respectful of others. That is the moral to this story.