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Police Counter-Revolution, Pete, 1962
Sun Jul 31, 2016 14:02

The New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) $5 billion annual budget just got a little bit bigger. On July 25, Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner William Bratton appeared at a press conference at City Hall to announce a $7.5 million spending spree.

Most of the headlines reported that the new purchases will go towards “protective gear,” including 20,000 new helmets and 6,000 additional bulletproof vests. But offensive merchandise is also in the shopping basket; automatic long rifles, not to mention unspecified quantities of newer, more powerful versions of gear currently tacked to NYPD belts — Tasers and that old crowd pleaser, pepper spray.

The White House is apparently taking similar steps to beef up police weaponry following shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge last month. After meeting privately with the leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations on July 11, the Obama Administration is reportedly reconsidering the prohibitions it placed last year on the Pentagon’s sale of surplus War on Terror equipment — armored vehicles, grenade launchers — to local police departments.

The purchases will likely do little to stop isolated individuals from attacking officers and appear to have more to do with intimidation and control of dissent.

“What we’re witnessing is a broad assault on the right to full and free assembly,” said Alex Vitaly, who teaches criminology at Brooklyn College.

But if political leaders hope such measures will restore quietude and submission to a country roused by protest they might do better preventing footage of police from going public. Video images of racialized and often deadly encounters between African-Americans and police have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years and an emerging vanguard of lawmakers nationwide are taking steps to keep the public in the dark.

“The issue of police misconduct, police brutality, police killings particularly in Black and brown communities — none of that is new,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice (PFCJ). “But for a portion of America who hasn’t been experiencing it on a daily basis, it’s been really important for them to witness what’s actually going on and for people of conscious to join together with one another. As you see steps forward both in the capacity to shine a light on what police are doing and expose it to the world, you are going to see a parallel effort to try and push back against that because it is not in the state’s interest to have police accountability.”

On July 11, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law exempting police body and dashboard camera footage from the state’s public record laws. Under House Bill 972, citizens who are filmed can view the material, as well as interested reporters, but to do so requires filing a written request with law enforcement that police departments have the discretion to refuse. If such is the case, citizens and journalists must seek redress in court. Members of the public who are granted access to the footage can be prohibited from copying or distributing the material under the law.

With HB 972, North Carolina became the sixth state — together with South Carolina, Georgia,Florida, Oregon and Illinois — to pass laws keeping dash-cam and body-cam videos from the public record.

“Just as body cameras are being deployed around the country, we’re seeing legislation and regulations and amendments to public records laws to restrict access to the footage,” said Verheyden-Hilliard.

At the signing ceremony in Raleigh, flanked by uniformed officers supportive of the measure, McCrory sought to portray the bill as striking a balance between open government and officer rights.

“If you hold a piece of film for a long period of time, you completely lose the trust of individuals,” McCrory said. However, “we’ve learned if you immediately release a video, sometimes it distorts the entire picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officials.”

McCrory neglected to cite specific examples of body camera footage distorting the “entire picture” but his office referred the Indypendent to Frank Perry with the North Carolina Office of Public Safety. Perry couldn’t think of any either but argued body cameras can render “an unfair angle or unfair picture of what happens” between law enforcement and the public.

“I’ve worked internal affairs for decades,” Perry said. “There are times when internal affairs needs a quiet view of what happened to render due processes to an agent or officer.” There might also be witnesses or victims in police video who need to be protected.

Nevertheless, Perry conceded, instances might arise under HB 972 in which there is a genuine public interest in disclosing footage and yet it gets tied up in courts.

“I could see the possibility that law enforcement says ‘no’ [to a request to view footage], a judge says ‘no,’ and then there’ll be an appeal,” said Perry. “We’ll see how this gets mitigated.”

That’s what happened in Illinois where it took a Chicago judge to order the release of police dashcam footage that showed the shooting of Laquan McDonald—over a year after McDonald was killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. The footage sparked immediate public outcry and mass protests that clogged traffic on the Windy City’s streets.

Perry admits HB 972 isn’t perfect but he feels that if tailored to meet the needs of law enforcement elsewhere in the country, it could become a piece of model legislation for other states to adapt.

Verheyden-Hilliard takes a dimmer view. Protecting-the-victim arguments don’t hold water in her eyes.

“There are ample technical capacities and blurring algorithms that could be used to ensure personal privacy,” she said. “What they are really trying to do is stop the public from seeing clearly what police are doing, how police are interacting with the public.”

At the urging of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Oklahoma City police department dropped its body camera program in June. Officers will, however, be allowed to bring their own rifles to work, Police Chief Bill Ciity announced last month.

Still, many police departments have embraced cameras. Taser International, the largest purveyor of body cameras on the market, pitches their merchandise as a way for police to curb use-of-force complaints, an enticing promise for cities like New York that shell out approximately $70 million annually to settle such cases.

Body and dash-cam footage is shot from the point of view of officers who have the ability to disable the cameras and, in some cases, decide when and when not to record.

Cameras attached to police in Baton Rouge last month niftily became dislodged and failed to capture their altercation with Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man who died of close-range gunshot wounds officers delivered to his head, chest and back while pinning him to the ground.

In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, dash-cam video from officer Jeronimo Yanez’s squad car recorded the killing of Philando Castile, whom Yanez shot while the 32-year-old, African-American cafeteria worker reached for his wallet. The video has not been released because it is part of the investigation, but Castile’s final moments were live streamed to Facebook by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds.

When off-duty officer Wayne Isaacs, shot and killed Delrawn Small in Brooklyn in front of his girlfriend and his 4-month-old child on Independence Day, little media attention was given to the incident. In the coverage the killing did receive, reporters were disinclined to believe witnesses accounts over the word of Isaacs, who alleged he was defending himself against Small’s punches . The New York Post quoted a high-ranking police official who told the paper the shooting was “absolutely” justified.

“The bottom line is, what the ... would you get out your car for? What if those punches turn into [Small] stabbing [Isaacs] in the face?’’ the official told the Post. “Should [Isaacs] have shot him? Absolutely. I would have.”.

Security footage from a nearby building later emerged showing Small calmly approach Isaac’s car, where upon the off-duty cop casually shoots him at point blank range. Even though CPR proficiency is required of NYPD officers, Isaacs neglected to assist Small as he lay dying. Instead he made a phone call, it us unclear to whom.

““He was the love of my life and the NYPD took him from me,” Small’s fiance, Zaquanna Albert, told the Independent.

Albert said Small had been teaching her to play chess and that they were planning a vacation to Florida together. “ That’s cancelled,” she said.

Instead, Albert has begun taking part in regular protests calling for Isaac’s to be indicted for murder. Mass demonstrations have likewise arisen in Louisiana and Minnesota that likely would not be taking place if video did not exist.

Along with restricting access to body cameras another tactic to halt protests before they get started is to prohibit bystanders from filming law enforcement.

“You have an absolute right to film the police,” said PFCJ’s Verheyden-Hilliard — barring certain restrictions. You can’t directly interfere with police operations, for instance.

But not legal experts agree.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an appeal with the Third Circuit Court regarding a summary judgement issued by Judge Mark Kearney of Pennsylvania's Eastern District Court in February. Judge Kearney’s ruling covers two separate First Amendment claims; one from Rick Fields, who was arrested for photographing a large gathering of police, the other from Amanda Geraci, a legal observer whom police attacked when she attempted to film an arrest at a protest. Judge Kearney ruled that citizens do not have “a First Amendment right to record police conduct without any stated purpose of being critical of the government.”

This interpretation of the Constitution raises many questions, not the least of which is how must a videographer state criticism of the government in order to receive First Amendment protection?

Judge Kearney’s ruling is an outlier but the Third Circuit’s judgement could set a dangerous precedent. Meanwhile, the absence of a Supreme Court ruling regarding filming police has left a vacuum for lawmakers to propose their own rules.

Last year, Texas State Representative Jason Villalba of Dallas proposed legislation at the behest of the Dallas Police and the Texas Municipal Police Association that would have barred citizens, including news media, from filming within 25 feet of law enforcement. The legislation was promptly dropped, following the death of Walter Scott, North Charleston. Video recorded by a bystander showed Scott, running away as officer Michael Slager fired eight bullets into his back. The footage gained national notoriety and turned the public against Villalba’s bill.

A similar measure was proposed earlier this year by Arizona State Senator John Kavanagh, a former New York City cop and promptly dropped amid public outcry.

Other pieces of legislation have aimed at protecting the right to film cops. Colorado lawmakers enacted a law last year that imposes a $15,000 civil penalty on police who prevent the public from filming them. New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams introduced the Right to Know Act in July. The bill would prohibit police from interfering with or intimidating citizen’s filming them. Patrick Lynch with the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association opposes the act arguing that any legislation regarding filming police must include a fifteen foot buffer zone.

New technology might soon make these feuds over the right to film police mute, however. Apple received a patent this summer for an infrared sensor that enables third parties to disable camera’s on their Iphones. Judging from materials submitted to the U.S. patent office, Apple plans to market the device to the entertainment industry to prevent unauthorized recordings of concert performances and the like. But it is easy to imagine the technology, in the hands of law enforcement, to push brutal and racist policing practices back into the shadows.

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