There’s an unfortunate attitude among many members of law enforcement organizations that they are themselves above the law. You need look no further than a cursory Google search on abuses of power by police officers, evidence mishandling by prosecutors, or corrupt judges to see that. Law enforcement officers are, after all, human, and just as fallible and prone to hypocrisy and excess as you or I.
Enter the rise of technology. Video recording equipment has gotten smaller and cheaper, with cameras in teddy bears to help spy on the babysitter, built into mobile phones to let you take video snapshots anywhere, and helmet-mounted cameras to record adventures. Staff Sgt Anthony Graber (MD Air Nat’l Guard) has one of the latter, and used it while riding his motorcycle on March 5th (and admittedly driving VERY irresponsibly). He was pulled over by Trooper J. D. Uhler of the Maryland State Police – not in uniform or wearing any identifying clothing whatsoever – who displayed his sidearm BEFORE properly identifying himself as a member of law enforcement, a gross violation of departmental policy. ( http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-police-cameras-graber-20100903,0,5148683.story )
Fortunately for Graber, he captured every detail of the traffic stop with his camera, and uploaded it to YouTube. The Maryland State Police found it, and executed a search warrant on his home, seizing cameras and computers, stating that his recording of the traffic stop was a violation of the Maryland Wiretap Act ( http://mlis.state.md.us/asp/statutes_respond.asp?article=gcj§ion=10-401&Extension=HTML ), claiming that the interaction between Trooper Uhler and Staff Sgt Graber was a ‘private conversation’ and therefore protected under the Act.
Judge Emory Pitt Jr of the Harford County Circuit Court threw out those charges in a 20 page decision ( http://www.scribd.com/doc/38308423/State-of-Maryland-v-Anthony-John-Graber-III ), explaining not only that the Act as written did not cover this situation, but that police officers do not have an expectation of privacy when executing their duties in public, nor should they. Quote: "Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation. ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos cutodes [sic]’ (Who watches the watchmen?)"
Though the judge’s ruling is not binding to other judges (as it is just a circuit court), it sets the beginnings of a precedent, and is based in a solid interpretation of both the law as written and existing case histories, so it is unlikely that the ruling will be overturned in a higher court. This is the beginning of the end for opacity in law enforcement, and the rest depends on the citizens of our nation to carry this further. Would the Rodney King beating have happened if the officers involved knew there was a good chance they would be recorded, and that the recording would turn up in court? If George Holliday, the man who videotaped King’s savage beating, hadn’t been around to videotape it, or if he had been scared of police reprisal for submitting the recording, would any of us have even heard of the abuse?
There are a number of ways you can help. If you have a mobile phone with onboard camera, use it. There is software available for almost any camera-equipped smartphone that will share recorded video and sound to Youtube, Facebook, or a number of other sites. One free software package called Qik ( http://www.qik.com ) offers an option for streaming your camera’s video live to the internet and keeps a copy of the video on the site regardless of what happens to the phone – very useful if you worry about your phone being confiscated by an angry law enforcement officer trying to hide evidence of their misdeeds. Note that in this case, it would also capture the confiscation itself on video. (Full disclosure: I use Qik, but have no ownership stake in their company or any vested interest whatsoever in their success or failure.)
Video isn’t the only way you can contribute to ‘watching the watchmen’ – never underestimate the power of the written word. If you witness something happening that shouldn’t be, commit as much as possible to memory, and write down the details as soon as you can, even if it’s just a quick note. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or even coherency, you can worry about that later. Submit tips to local news agencies – you might not be an anchorman or anchorwoman on the six o’clock news, but they don’t get their stories just from being in the right place in the right time. That’s your job.
Public meetings of local governmental organizations are also worth attending, you’d be surprised at the amount of graft and other nonsense that goes on simply because nobody spares an hour or two once a month to attend a public council meeting. Be warned, though, taking an interest in local politics can swiftly turn into an interest in participating in local politics – but that’s another article.
Not every judge can be counted on to do the right thing, unfortunately. Felicia Laverne Gibson, of Salisbury NC, is currently appealing a ruling upholding her arrest for ‘resisting, obstructing, or delaying a police officer’ for videotaping a traffic stop from her front porch. ( http://www.salisburypost.com/News/082110-Felicia-Gibson-guilty-resist-arrest-Mark-Hunter-qcd ) The judge who issued the ruling is currently seeking re-election, while Gibson and her attorney are seeking an appeal. As a sidebar, this is a problem that can be made slightly better by participating in local elections and making sure you’re putting the right judges on the bench.
On a final note, it’s worth stating that the vast, overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are honest – they go out and do their jobs intending only to serve the public need. It’s a tough, thankless job that I wouldn’t take for any amount of money – they are not the problem. The particular nature of law enforcement, however, means that the comparatively low number of ‘bad’ cops – or even good cops that make mistakes – have a seriously detrimental effect. If a bus driver has a bad day and takes it out on you, you might be late to work. If an armed police officer has a bad day, you get another news article about an unarmed man being murdered in a subway station ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10565543 ) or another unarmed man being brutally beaten at a traffic stop ( http://www.wfaa.com/news/crime/Dallas-officers-under-investigation-for-police-brutality-102479674.html ). This will only stop happening if law enforcement officers know that chances are good that anytime they abuse their powers, they will be watched, and the watchers will not be silenced.
"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." US Supreme Court, City of Houston v. Hill, 1987