Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should police get to shoot so much video? Does it really make us more secure?

Illinois has some of the toughest laws in the nation when it comes to taking pictures or shooting video of police in action. Depending on the specifics and the mood of the officers at the scene, it can be construed as a felony offense to whip out that video camera to catch moving pictures of our police at work.

Which is why it comes off as hypocritical to listen to law enforcement types rant about how much they need to have those cameras installed on lamp-posts and buildings all over the city – creating the impression that “someone’s watching you” at all times.

THE AMERICAN CIVIL Liberties Union on Tuesday issued a report that asks city government to quit installing new cameras until such a time that rules concerning the use of video from the existing cameras are devised.

While they offer up no specifics of wrong-doing in Chicago, the ACLU cites problems in other cities that have occurred when police got carried away with the cameras and the resulting pictures. The invasions of privacy can be extreme, the ACLU argues.

The reaction from police and city officials in Chicago is all-too-predictable. It amounts to a big fat, “Drop Dead!” to the ACLU.

Fourteenth Ward Alderman Edward Burke went so far as to tell the Chicago Sun-Times that the police cameras are “one of the most effective tools in law enforcement today,” while also claiming that the cameras are “very popular” with Chicago residents.


I suspect that many people think of the cameras the same way the police themselves seem to react every time they discover someone is shooting video of themselves.

The laws that make it a crime to take pictures of the police in action were a knee-jerk reaction to the proliferation of devices capable of taking pictures. Someone whipping out their cellular telephone to capture an image of a cop?

My primitive cellphone takes such dumpy looking pictures that I would never envision using them for anything. But I’m also aware the newest generation of devices are capable of coming up with clearer images.

THE PEOPLE WHO argue on behalf of such laws claim it amounts to police harassment, almost as though someone expects a law enforcement officer to behave at a higher standard than the rest of us.

Actually, they are. Or they ought to be. I can’t help but think the people who like such laws merely don’t want to be forced to look whenever a cop screws up on the job – which is something that ought to be public. The police are supposed to be there to protect, not to harass (yes, you can insert your favorite Richard J. Daley line about the police “preserving disorder”right here) the people.

It makes me wonder how many people think back to those images from the early 1990s of Rodney King being beaten by police officers in Los Angeles, believing that the only thing “wrong” with that situation is that those cops should then have turned on the person shooting the grainy video and beaten her senseless too.

Or, closer to home, that bartender who was beaten a few years ago by an off-duty Chicago cop, only to have a private security camera capture the whole incident.

YET PUT CONTROL of the cameras into the hands of the police, and they don’t seem to mind such video. Perhaps because attorneys for the city will engage in lengthy court battles to keep incriminating shots private, and let only the carefully chosen shots that make them look at their best to ever be seen publicly.

Aside from the whole idea of the cameras being an invasion of privacy, I actually have a bigger objection to them – the fact that they may well create the illusion that we’re somehow more safe with having all those cameras in place.

A camera doesn’t somehow magically come to life and make an arrest, or use the physical force that might be necessary (I do accept the premise that there are certain limited circumstances when a police officer is justified in using force) at a crime scene to restore order.

For that, you need actual people in uniform in the neighborhoods. All a video camera will do is capture grainy images of crime taking place while no police officers were on hand to stop it.

CITY OFFICIALS CLAIM that cameras provided images that resulted in more than 4,500 arrests during the past five years – which the ACLU rightfully says is less than 1 percent of the arrest total in Chicago.

Which makes me think the only thing those cameras might actually accomplish is creating the illusion throughout the neighborhoods that someone is watching, while in reality the chances of a person committing a criminal act being caught are about the same as they always were – largely dependent on the lack of intelligence of the would-be criminal themselves.


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