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Why is a Simple Solution to Police Brutality Being Ignored?

Due to recent high profile events, awareness of the problem of police brutality has increased, but there is a simple solution to the problem that is largely being ignored, and often actively resisted in cities across America. It is a proven fact that requiring police to record interaction with suspects when investigating crimes or making arrests greatly reduces incidents of police brutality. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Use of force by police officers declined 60% in first year since introduction of cameras in Rialto, Calif.” The article pointed out that, “The effect of third-party observers on behavior has long been known: Thomas Jefferson once advised that "whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching."” The biggest benefit of mandatory recording is not determining what happened after the fact, but preventing incidents from happening in the first place. Research has shown that everyone (police and suspects alike) behaves significantly better when they know they are being recorded, resulting in less resisting, fewer assaults on officers, and fewer reports of police misconduct.

So why are so few cities recording police contact, and so many law enforcement agencies actively resisting mandatory use of recording devices? The most common objection is cost, however, outfitting police officers with recording equipment and requiring them to use it would most likely save significantly more money than it would cost. Here are five reasons why the claim that it costs too much is not a valid reason to shy away from this solution:

1. Counties and States spend millions of dollars every year defending themselves against allegations of police misconduct. Even if the accused officers are eventually exonerated, the substantial legal costs of mounting a defense are not typically recovered. Having a recording of what actually happened greatly reduces the cost of defending against these claims of abuse, as it would eliminate most false claims and cause valid claims to be resolved quicker. Savings in this area alone could easily off-set any cost involved in recording these incidents.

2. Trials are expensive. Consider all the things a county pays for in a trial: the courtroom, the judge, the reporter, the clerk, the prosecutor, police officers, investigators, experts, bailiffs, custody officers, and, in many cases, the defense attorneys, defense investigators, and defense experts as well. Considering that many trials last weeks, and sometimes even months, trials can be very expensive. Most cases that go to trial do so because there is a disputed issue of fact that cannot be resolved, and one of the most commonly disputed issues of fact is an officer’s claim that the defendant did or said something which the defendant denies, and the only way to resolve the issue is to let a jury decide who they think is telling the truth. There are thousands of cases where an audio or video recording would clarify what was actually said or done, and avoid the need for a trial.

3. The fact that everyone behaves better when they know they are being recorded, means that recording reduces crime, which saves money in a variety of ways.

4. It's hard to put a price tag on the public's confidence in law enforcement, but it is something that clearly has value, and ultimately results in less crime and less expense. Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to create the impression that law enforcement as a whole is corrupt, racist, or prone to using excessive force. Mandatory recording would exonerate the officers who are falsely accused, and would make it easier to identify and weed out the bad apples.

5. If cost is truly an issue, why not start out by recording audio only? While audio alone would not be as effective as something like body cameras, the cost would be very minimal and it would be ten times better than no recording at all. The point is that today's technology could easily be used to correct some serious problems facing our criminal justice system, and cost should not be used as an excuse for keeping us in the dark ages, particularly when it is essentially, as we have seen, a straw man argument.

There is another side effect of police brutality that many people are unaware of, but one that, as criminal defense attorneys, we see all the time. We have many clients that claim officers used excessive force, and unfortunately we have to tell them that if it is simply their word versus the officer's word, they are not going to be believed, and alleging police brutality is far more likely to hurt their case than help it. One of the most frustrating things about officers using excessive force, is that the victim of the force not only suffers injuries, they are almost always charged with more serious crimes (such as felony resisting or assaulting an officer) so that the officers involved can justify the amount of force they used.

We recently did a trial that involved excessive force by police officers. Our client, Kevin, was walking into a convenience store with his hands in his pockets. He did not have anything illegal on him, and he was not doing anything illegal. He was contacted by a police officer, who, without any reason whatsoever, thought that maybe Kevin had a weapon on him. The officer drew his gun, said he was going to shoot Kevin, then tackled Kevin to the ground. While Kevin was lying face down on the ground he was punched in the face multiple times by the officer that initially contacted him, and then another officer came over and struck him multiple times with a baton on his back and legs. Other than the officer's testimony, there was no evidence Kevin made any attempt to resist.

Normally an incident like this would probably result in nothing more than a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest. However, since Kevin suffered injuries from the force used by the officers, they had to claim that the force was justified, so he was charged with felony resisting with force or violence (the officer alleged that Kevin kneed him in the chest). The severity of these charges meant that if Kevin had been found guilty he would have been facing up to 11 years in prison. Fortunately for Kevin, the incident was witnessed by multiple people who agreed to testify at trial and the jury ultimately acquitted him. If there had not been witnesses who had agreed to testify, Kevin could be doing eleven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. I can’t help but wonder how many people might be sitting in prison right now who could have been exonerated if the police were required to use technology that is inexpensive and readily available.
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