When a UC Davis police officer, Lt. John Pike, took out a can of pepper spray and calmly doused a group of passive, nonviolent Occupy protesters sitting on a campus pathway, he should have known that all of the world would witness his horrific act. There were scores of people watching the scene unfold, nearly every one of them with a video camera in his or her pocket smartphone. Within hours of Pike's attack, the video went viral, uploaded onto websites like YouTube and shared via text messages, emails, tweets and Facebook status updates.
The only good thing about this incident is that everyone could see it. Thanks to technology, we have entered a new era of citizen oversight of the police. The behavior and actions of police officers are increasingly captured on digital cameras and opened up to broad public examination. And the long-term result is likely to be a significant -- and welcome -- reduction in police misconduct.
Ever since spectators recorded the unjustified shooting of Oscar Grant on an Oakland commuter train platform in 2009, it seems there's a new video or photograph of police brutality distributed for the masses to see each week. The Occupy movement in particular has been on the receiving end of several violent police attacks caught on camera, from the pepper-spraying by Seattle police of Dorli Rainey, an 84-year-old retired schoolteacher, to the beating of Kayvan Sabehgi, a veteran of the war in Iraq, by baton-wielding Oakland cops.
Traditionally, police abuses were easier to hide. Most interactions with police and private citizens, even those on the public streets, weren't likely to be recorded. Although spectators occasionally captured incidents on tape -- like the infamous Rodney King beating in 1991 -- few people carried around video cameras while they went about their daily routines. Now people have quick access through their iPhones or other smartphones, which include video recording as a standard feature.
For individual victims, having a video or audio recording of an encounter with police can provide the crucial evidence necessary to prove a complaint about misconduct. Such complaints usually come down to "he said, cop said" situations and the credibility battle is usually titled heavily in favor of the lawman over the suspected criminal.
The benefit of the new police surveillance, however, will be enjoyed by everyone. As the legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis reminded us a century ago, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." People who know or suspect they are being watched are more likely to behave appropriately and follow the rules. Given police officers' authority to use force on citizens, it is a vital that cops obey the Constitution, federal and state law, and the protocols of their departments.
Too often police officers abuse that authority. Yet now citizens like Simon Glik have a "weapon" with which to fight back. As Glik was walking past Boston Common on a fall evening in 2007, he saw three police officers arresting a young man and using what Glik thought was excessive force. So Glik took out his digital cell phone camera and recorded what he saw. Unhappy to be caught on candid camera, the police turned around and arrested Glik -- for violating the state's anti-wiretapping law.
This has been the unfortunate response of some police departments to people who record their actions in public. Many states have such laws, which are designed to protect ordinary people from being secretly recorded. Even though these laws were not intended to cover police officers working on the public streets, who have no reasonable expectation of privacy, some police forces and their allies in the prosecutor's office have been discouraging citizen oversight by punishing people who record police misconduct.
As a federal court which ruled in August on the case of Simon Glik explained, "Gathering information about government officials in a form that can be readily disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting the free discussion of governmental affairs." Free speech, the court continued, "has particular significance with respect to the government because it is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression."
That cell phone in your pocket thus serves the values of free speech - and not because you can call your friends on it. Your digital camera and voice recorder is the new mechanism to insure that We the People can watch over the police and check their excesses.