photo credit: Dred242
A few days ago, a Utah Valley University student was questioned by a couple of police officers regarding his possession and “open carry” of a handgun. Someone had called the police to report a “man with a gun”, and the police swooped in to save the day—this after the student had been open carrying fairly consistently for the past three semesters. The student was well within his rights, despite the ignorant law enforcement officers claiming that he was not allowed to openly carry his firearm.
The student was able to record most of the exchange on his iPhone, which he then posted on YouTube (here and here). In the ensuing days, he was interviewed by a litany of local media outlets about the event. It is safe to assume that none of this attention would have been generated had he not been able to provide a recording of the police officers making factually incorrect assertions regarding the law and ordering him to comply with an unnecessary and unlawful order; without documentation, it becomes a matter of “he said, she said”.
For decades, surveillance cameras have been used to monitor stores, offices, and other locations to help visually identify and document a potential crime. Video recordings have been used as evidence in convicting criminals, as the (nearly) irrefutable evidence provides the judge and jury an opportunity to be a virtual fly on the wall during the event itself. In such instances, the defendant’s plea becomes irrelevant as the video plainly shows what really did happen.
Through the use of mobile devices, citizen journalism is applying this same level of scrutiny to the government. Our culture has placed an inherent trust in the law enforcement, and thus if a case ever comes down to a police officer’s word versus the defendant’s, chances are that the police officer’s story will carry the day. However, allowing the public to become a virtual fly on the wall in these confrontations with the law likewise provides an opportunity to show what really did happen.
A few examples are in order.
On New Year’s Day, 2009, a police officer in California by the name of Johannes Mehserle was charged with the murder of one Oscar Grant III after shooting him to death in an Oakland transit station. Grant was, at the time of his death, a 22-year-old father. Videos captured by several witnesses on their cell phones show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back as another officer kneeled on him. The police officer resigned, was later charged with murder, pled not guilty, and the trial is underway.
On July 25, 2008, protesters gathered in Times Square as part of the Critical Mass ride, a monthly protest of urban reliance on motor vehicles. One of the arrests made was that of Christopher Long, a bicyclist who, according to the police officer, steered his bicycle into the officer, causing them both to fall to the ground. Further, his arrest was on grounds of obstructing traffic, attempted assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. An anonymously-posted video, recorded with a cell phone, quickly showed the truth—that the police officer was the clear aggressor, pushing Long to the ground in an unprovoked assault. The officer was placed on administrative leave after the video surfaced, and he later resigned. The charges against Long were dropped.
In September 2007, 20-year-old Brett Darrow was sitting in a parked car at 2 a.m. when a police officer approached him, asked for identification, and then ordered him out of the car and began shouting at him. The officer threatened for nearly ten minutes to fictitiously conjure up any number of charges against Darrow, shouting, among other things, “You want to try me? You want to try me tonight? You think you have a bad night? I will ruin your night. Do you want to try me tonight, young boy? Do you want to go to jail for some [expletive] reason I come up with?” Darrow was able to record the exchange with an in-car mounted camera he installed after previous run-ins with police, and posted it on YouTube. The officer was suspended, and it was later discovered that he had previously been arrested for assault and stealing. He was subsequently fired by the city’s Board of Alderman in a 5-0 vote.
On September 3, 2009, police arrived at the San Jose apartment of 20-year-old Phuong Ho to arrest him on suspicion of assaulting one of his roommates. Ho, who was unarmed and did not resist arrest, was hit with a metal baton more than ten times, including once on the head. The other officer used his taser gun on the individual. Another one of Ho’s roommates captured the events on his cell phone, serving as evidence in the ensuing investigation. Just last week, the District Attorney said that he would not charge the officers with a crime.
On May 24, 2009, an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman pulled over and choked a paramedic who was delivering a patient to a hospital. Trooper Daniel Martin and his colleague were evidently responding to a call of their own, and became upset that the ambulance did not yield to them. The ambulance finally pulled over, and Martin attempted to put the paramedic in an arm lock and handcuff him, at one point placing his hands over the man’s throat in an attempt to choke him. Though the Highway Patrol repeatedly denied any requests from news agencies to obtain the dashcam video through the state’s Open Records Act, the son of the patient being transported caught the exchange on his cell phone’s camera. After pleading that he was a doctor with a patient who needed medical attention, the troopers finally relented and left the scene. Martin was placed on paid administrative leave, and ultimately suspended for just five days.
It’s not just cell phones, though; standard video cameras, surveillance cameras, and even the officers’ own dash-cams have served to help document the power-mongering rampages of badge-endowed tyrants. Of course, these law enforcement officials aren’t exactly eager to smile for the camera, and thus object to being videotaped.
Though the majority of them are likely well-intentioned and self-restrained individuals, some policemen clearly think themselves to be above the law, and given their power and position, they can often easily get away with it. Persuading others to disbelieve what a police officer has falsely claimed to be true requires more than contradictory testimony—evidence is needed to help debunk the myth that police officers exist “to protect and to serve”. Citizen journalism, and especially the use of mobile technology, will in the future play an increasingly important role in not only pursuing justice for those wardens of the state who grossly abuse their authority, but also helping the masses better understand what James Madison once declared: “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”.
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