Speaking truth to public power.

Credit: Flikr

Police officers occupy a respected, often hallowed role in society as the protectors of the populace. Yet they are also public servants, much in the way that standard bureaucrats and elected officials are. There seems to be some cognitive dissonance in some people’s minds that allows them to generally believe in public accountability while excepting accountability to the aspects of society engaged in our “defense.” Same with the military — hence Conservatives’ reticence to touch or tamper with it even as they wage their own war against the size and scope of government.

So I was struck by a fascinating story on NPR about a girl in New Jersey who was actually detained by the Newark police after filming an arrest with her video phone on the bus she was riding:

Consider what happened to Khaliah Fitchette. Last year, Fitchette, who was 16 at the time, was riding a city bus in Newark, N.J., when two police officers got on to deal with a man who seemed to be drunk. Fitchette decided this would be a good moment to take out her phone and start recording.

“One of the officers told me to turn off my phone, because I was recording them,” she said. “I said no. And then she grabbed me and pulled me off the bus to the cop car, which was behind the bus.”

The police erased the video from Fitchette’s phone. She was handcuffed and spent the next two hours in the back of a squad car before she was released. No charges were filed.

Fitchette is suing the Newark Police Department for violating her civil rights. The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped bring the lawsuit.

A citizen films police officers performing a fairly routine duty in public and is detained for TWO hours, handcuffed and humiliated. Kudos to her for suing. But wait, there’s more:

“They need to move quickly, in split seconds, without giving a lot of thought to what the adverse consequences for them might be,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We feel that anything that’s going to have a chilling effect on an officer moving — an apprehension that he’s being videotaped and may be made to look bad — could cost him or some citizen their life,” Pasco says, “or some serious bodily harm.”

So there’s two main arguments here.

  • The argument from principle is that as citizens, we deserve to (and in fact may be obligated t0) engage in oversight of ALL public officials. That includes the politician, his bureaucrat appointee, and — believe it or not — the members of the police and military. The advent of camera phones could thus be seen as heralding a golden age in public oversight. Citizens are exponentially more empowered today to prevent, or at least report, abuse. And they should be. We give officers guns and free reign of our streets to PROTECT us. When they are abusing our rights, it should be considered an utmost affront to our citizenship.
  • But there’s also the argument from prudence. Police groups say, perhaps rightly, that the possibility of such scrutiny infringes on an officer’s ability to think quickly and react. The fact that citizens can monitor officers in the field has to be weighed against the inferior protection outcomes that such scrutiny will yield. In this case, protection is paramount.

You can take your pick, but I’m not buying argument number two. I am willing to even concede that there might be some kind of chilling effect. But officers need to learn to live in a world where they can make sound judgments timely enough to protect citizens. All considerations have to be accounted for, but who should bear the burden of balancing those considerations if not public servants? Besides, if you want a good prudential reason why it is ok for officers to humiliate and detain citizens who film them, HERE’s one:

Khaliah Fitchette’s lawyers in New Jersey say her detention was illegal. But Fitchette still says she’d think twice before filming police in Newark again.

“It would have to be important enough to get myself in trouble for, I guess,” she says.

She has this attitude, Fitchette says, because she thinks she could get in trouble again, even though her detention was allegedly unlawful.

And if I have to choose between a chilling effect that makes citizens afraid to monitor their own servants, or one that gives public servants greater pause, I choose the latter.

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