This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Big Brother was supposed to be the police using cameras everywhere to watch civilians. Today, Big Brother’s just as likely to be watching the police.
Back in 1991, it seemed a fluke that the beating of Rodney King got captured on video, resulting in riots and the conviction of two of the officers involved. What was once a fluke has since become the norm. Security cameras, citizens with cheap video cameras and professional videographers routinely record the police battling or beating suspects on the streets.
In some cases, law enforcement has reason to be grateful. After an officer wound up hitting a girl in South Seattle on Monday, one headline read, “Seattle officer punches girl in face during jaywalking stop.”
Read the attached story, and it sounds ugly. The officer handcuffs a 19-year-old after seeing her jaywalk across an arterial. (Handcuffs? For jaywalking?) While he’s cuffing her, he smashes another jaywalker, a 17-year-old girl, in the face. Suspend that cop!
The video tells a different story. The 19-year-old, after defying the officer’s orders, walks off, resists his attempt to lead her back, then begins fighting his efforts to handcuff her. The scene turns wild; the officer is surrounded by onlookers. The 17-year-old gets into the act, appears to grab the officer’s arm, gets pushed back, then comes at him again – at which point he punches her.
Punching, it turns out, is one of the techniques of escalating force police are trained to use in a physical confrontation. It’s a step higher than verbal commands – which obviously failed in this case – and a step lower than the use of pepper spray, clubs or Tasers.
The Seattle officer’s actions might be critiqued by an expert in police tactics, but the video shows no evidence of viciousness on his part. His punch looks brutal – all punches do – but the situation was spinning out of control. The 17-year-old was going for him, and he might reasonably have feared a grab for his gun.
Cameras have caught far worse. On April 17, again in Seattle, several officers detained a Latino man while trying to catch a robber. A freelancer with a camera recorded two cops kicking and stomping him as he lay on the ground and one officer yelling, “I’m going to beat the (expletive) Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?”
Suddenly they realize they got the wrong man and help him up. The officers are now under criminal investigation, and the FBI is investigating whether they ought to face federal civil rights charges.
It’s not like the old days, when cops could lose it with a suspect and have some confidence they wouldn’t be held to account. A digital camera isn’t merely an eyewitness, it’s a way of posting a cop-on-suspect struggle on the Web and spreading it around the world. We hope that deters police abuses. We hope it doesn’t deter the use of force when it is genuinely necessary.