Watching the Cops

With the recent death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, a bit more attention has been placed on the police in America lately.  The incident in Ferguson, Missouri has also helped people realize that the police are not always the great heroes they are made out to be.  Actually, it is the reaction of the police to the protests in Ferguson that has been even more glaring.

Like anything in life, there are good cops and bad cops.  The problem is that they hold a legal monopoly on the use of force.  And this often leads to a lack of accountability.  How many times do we see wrongdoing of cops, only for them to go on administrative leave (usually paid), while their own buddies supposedly investigate?

It usually takes a really serious incident with absolute proof before the other police will finally turn on their own.  It is only at that point that the person might be fired.  It is rare that there are criminal charges.

Personally, I think the police should be held criminally liable for their actions, even when on duty.  Some say this will restrain them from doing their job.  But that is the point.

If Eric Garner had been in a shopping mall or some other event with a private security firm, do you think it would have ended the same way?  Private security guards tend to want to de-escalate situations.


In 2011, Jose LaSalle witnessed the abusiveness of some cops in Harlem.  His stepson, who was only 16 at the time, was stopped by NYPD officers and had the sense to record the incident.  The police officers threatened the boy with physical harm, and even used racial slurs.

Frustrated with the incident and others like it, along with the lack of accountability, LaSalle later took matters in to his own hands.  He fought back with video cameras and volunteers.

He formed a group called CopWatch, which involves a small group of people going out on the streets to film the police, particularly when they are doing their stop-and-frisk activities.

LaSalle’s organization does not directly file complaints on behalf of victims of police abuse.  However, the work of him and his group has a strong deterrence effect.  It is amazing the difference in behavior of some cops who know that they have a camera recording their words and actions.

Technology and Civil Liberties

Many people today believe that our world of advanced technology is a detriment to our liberty.  Just look at the NSA and the revelations by Edward Snowden.  The federal government is collecting most of our electronic data.  We really don’t have any privacy from the government when it comes to email, phone calls, and any other computer-based communications.

However, I believe that technology, while playing both a positive and negative role towards liberty, is a net positive overall.  This story about CopWatch is a perfect example of where technology is on our side.

The majority of people in the U.S. now have a cell phone.  Most of the new cell phones have video cameras.  So most people walking around are walking around with a video camera available in their pocket.  They can usually turn it on in less than 10 seconds.

Politicians like to say that if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t be afraid.  This usually applies to each new invasion of our privacy and civil liberties.  While it is a completely false and absurd statement, it is more accurate when it comes to the police.

If the police have nothing to hide, then they shouldn’t mind having cameras on them.  The good police officers have nothing to worry about as long as they keep doing their job and acting in a professional and non-abusive manner.  It is the bad cops who should be afraid of the camera.

Ironically, the NYPD recently announced its own plans to have some officers where video cameras while on duty.  This may just be to quell opposition.  But this should really be a goal of liberty activists and those concerned with police abusing their power.

Let’s have all police where cameras, or at least audio recorders, at all times while working.  Technology is cheap enough now that it is feasible.

Aside from privatizing the police, I can’t think of a better way to significantly reduce the abuse of power and to hold the police more accountable.  We can fight back with technology on our side.