“The first rule of police work,” Sean Connery intoned to Kevin Costner in his Oscar-winning turn in “The Untouchables,” is this: “When your shift is over, you go home alive.”
Actually, the first rule of police work, as generally understood by those of us who pay police to do it, is to protect the property and persons of the citizens they serve. Unfortunately, too many among the modern constabulary have internalized Connery’s fictionalized, Prohibition-era Chicago way, while adding a streak of militaristic zeal, such that today’s police seem utterly anathema to what they were a generation ago.
Concerned more with self-preservation and control than with public service, modern police stalk city streets like an occupying force tasked with quelling an unruly population. This mindset is manifest in urban centers across the ostensibly free world, and evidence squeaks out in furtively recorded video and tearful testimony from those who have been on the business end of contemporary policing.
It should not require bystanders with camera phones or a lucky dash-cam angle to exonerate a suspect and expose police misconduct. Therefore, as the nature of policing has evidently changed (and not for the better), and since the technology exists, a partial remedy is apparent: Put cameras on police.
Specifically, police officers interacting with the public, apart from narrowly defined undercover circumstances, should be required to wear cameras that record their actions. The footage from these devices should be obtainable through freedom of information and subpoena procedures, with the identities of private citizens obscured unless they give consent.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” bleat nincompoops who defend the surveillance state. Their logic is sound, but they invert the application of rights and obligations in a free society. To wit, while they are misbegotten in supposing government has a right to monitor the actions of private citizens, their “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” admonition would be perfectly apt if directed toward police or others invested with public trust.
Put it in purely semantic terms, if you prefer. Absent a compelling reason, the behavior of private citizens should remain just that: private. Likewise, the conduct of officers operating in a public capacity should, as the default procedure, be public.
This is a matter of common sense, for which a quantifiable case can also be made. For example, in the city of Rialto, California, the use of force by police dropped 60 percent and complaints against officers dropped by 80 percent in 2013, the first year body-worn police cameras were deployed.
Whether the knowledge they were being recorded curbed police excesses, or people consequently chose not to launch unfounded complaints, or both, the result affirms Justice Brandeis’ assertion that sunlight is, indeed, the best disinfectant.
I am not a reflexive, cop-hating anarchist. You’ve never seen me smashing a Starbuck’s window or storming a police barricade in a balaclava (though I submit I could sell that look). I even played as a ringer for a New York Police Department hockey team, as some drinking companions were officers from the local precinct and, on hearing I grew up in Canada, assumed I would be a stellar addition to their roster (a harmless stereotype, of which I disabused them on my very first shift).
If I were to identify a turning point in my assessment, it would be the G20 summit in my hometown of Toronto in 2010. During that disgraceful episode, police assaulted and rounded up innocent citizens en masse and held them in brutal conditions without charge.
The police chief responsible is precisely the sort of impenetrable cop you may have encountered, who speaks as though he is reading from a manual and, when confronted with hard questions, mumbles inanities about “safety.” As of this writing, he is still on the job and in good standing.