The camera’s eye doesn’t lie

August 4, 2011


This all started with Rodney King.

More to the point, it started with a plumber named George Holliday. Had he not been video recording from his balcony, that night in 1991 might have been business as usual for L.A. police who struck King, a harmless drunk, 50 times with their batons, breaking his leg, his cheekbone and his skull. Had Holliday not captured video proof to the contrary, they might have gotten away with some lame excuse: oops, he slipped on the stairs.

But thanks to Holliday’s camera, we all knew better.

Twenty years later, cameras have become ubiquitous. They have captured entertainer meltdowns, crashes, tasings, deaths and a seemingly endless carnival of police misbehavior: questionable beatings, controversial shootings and unprovoked violence by those we hire to protect and to serve.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many police now identify cameras as the enemy.

Last week, news photographer Phil Datz was arrested on Long Island for videotaping a police action on a public street. In June, a man named Narces Benoit said Miami Beach Police pulled him from his car by his hair, handcuffed him and stomped his cellphone (which police deny) after he used it to record video of a fatal police shooting. In May, a woman named Emily Good was arrested for recording a traffic stop from her own front yard in Rochester, N.Y. In March, a Las Vegas man was beaten and arrested for videotaping police from his own driveway. In March of last year, a motorcyclist was arrested for recording his own traffic stop on a Maryland highway.

According to a 2010 report on the technology blog Gizmodo, at least three states have made it illegal to record an on-duty officer. Other states use existing wiretapping laws to support their arrests, a novel and selective interpretation of those statutes. What makes it novel is that such laws are typically invoked when telephone conversations are recorded; they require that both parties are aware of, and approve, the recording. What makes it selective is that one never hears of people being roughed up and arrested for recording videos that flatter the police.

The only thing more outrageous than the behavior is the excuses used to justify it. One of the cops in Rochester claimed, obviously for the benefit of the camera, that he did not feel “safe” with Emily Good recording him. Miami Beach Police claimed they confiscated videos only to safeguard the evidence.

Oh, please.

That stench you smell is the reek of official hypocrisy. Because the same police who so violently and vividly resist being recorded in the performance of their duties have no compunction about using the same technology against you and me, from the speed camera that catches you when you go flying through the school zone to the new gizmo that reads your license plate and checks for warrants

If it is OK for police to use cameras to catch us in our misdeeds, why is it not OK for us to use cameras to catch police in theirs?

There is something chilling and totalitarian about this insistence that cops have the right to do as they wish without what amounts to public oversight. What is it they fear? After all, the officer who is being videotaped can protect himself by doing one simple thing:

His job.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


Liberty275 6 years, 8 months ago

I gotta agree with pitts on this one. I'd only add that whatever weapons the police are allowed to use should be available to any American citizen other than felons or those diagnosed with severe mental conditions.

Getaroom 6 years, 8 months ago

You mean like you want and NEED: -Fully automatic true assault weapons for hunting and target shooting right? -You mean all those weapons and ammo that you and others so frantically purchased prior to and during the early days of President Obama's election because he was going to take them away from you and has not? -You mean armor piercing ammo and shoulder held ground-to-air missiles? -Oh, perhaps you mean all the C-4 you can load in your armor plated Hummer - for self protection? Sounds like you need to move to a beautiful desert retirement oasis known as - Arizona.

You know it's OK to just agree with Leonard Pitts although obviously that somehow pains you.

Maddy Griffin 6 years, 8 months ago

Big Brother just keeps getting closer and closer.

Getaroom 6 years, 8 months ago

"Big Brother" is already here and you have more "brothers" than you can imagine. They are the likes of the Koch brothers, Murdock and most of the super wealthy corporate business owners and wealthy politicians who are calling the shots about how government and ultimately how society is run. Why is that? Because they are afraid of losing the power they have, or not gaining the power they want. It is all about the POWER and in all it's forms. The same is true of these mega church preachers. It is all about power over others. Keep supporting these people and they will keep rolling all over you in the name of The Lord, "The Free Market", Capitalism, you name it. If it is out to control your life, doesn't matter what you call it. Big Brother is as good as any name. Is it a "we the people" nation or is going to always be "those other people"? Bottom line is, it is your personal responsibility to change the world into something you value and want for yourself and your children and your fellow neighbor and if you do not take that responsibility then what? Do you get what you deserve? Maybe! Most likely!

Kris_H 6 years, 8 months ago

I know a lot of police officers and many of them are glad to be recorded because it protects them against false accusations. In fact, most police cars have cameras that view both the inside and the outside of the car, and many officers carry audio recorders on them when they are interacting with people.

It seems it's only the ones who might be doing that which they should not who don't want to be recorded, to me.

All law enforcement officers are not alike.

50YearResident 6 years, 8 months ago

The camera's eye does not always tell the "whole" story! What happened before the camera started rolling which caused the reactions caught by the camera's eye can be justification for what the camera sees. As in Rodney King's case what happened before the camera was rolling put innocent people at risk of death and injury. Referring to the long car chase leading up to the camera's eye capture. If he had not resisted being pulled over, the story would be totally differant.

Jstanobservation 6 years, 8 months ago

Regardless of"what happend before the camera started rolling"he had been subdued.It was not the officers responsibility to deal out punishment,but to arrest and deliver him to court.

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