Why Good Cops Should Want Everything Recorded

Why Good Cops Should Want Everything Recorded December 23, 2011

I’ve written over and over again about bad cops being caught lying on police reports and framing innocent people after video or audio surfaces to reveal those lies. Here’s a case where the opposite occurred, a lawyer tried to lie about a police officer who was recording the entire event.

New York Attorney Eliott Dear was pulled over for going 84 in a 55 mph zone and given a ticket. He tried to fight the ticket by claiming that the officer had called him a “Jew kike.” He didn’t know that the entire situation was recorded by the dashboard video camera in the car and by an audio recorder on the officer’s uniform.

During his telephone interview with Sgt. Koopalethes, which was recorded, respondent at first equivocated about whether the trooper directed an ethnic slur at him, but after he was pressed to remember if a slur was used, he explained that since he wrote the letter contemporaneously to the incident, it was likely that the trooper said it. The interview continued and respondent added that the trooper dismissed respondent’s proffered explanation for speeding, namely, that his pregnant wife needed a bathroom, as more baloney from “you guys,” which respondent stated referred to orthodox Jews. Respondent further recounted that the trooper displayed a demeaning attitude toward respondent and his wife. However, none of this information was supported by the video or audio recordings made during the traffic stop.

In April 2008, 10 months after the traffic stop, the internal investigation was completed and the trooper was exonerated of all charges. In July 2008, the New Jersey State Police filed a complaint against respondent with the Disciplinary Committee wherein it was revealed that the traffic stop had been recorded. In August 2008, respondent was advised of the complaint and in September 2008, more than one year later, he paid the $265 fine for the speeding violation.

In a letter-answer to the complaint dated January 29, 2009, prepared by respondent’s then attorney, and also signed by respondent, respondent admitted that the trooper did not use any ethnic slurs and that he “exacerbated his mistake by not fully refuting [this] allegation … during his telephonic interview” with Sgt. Koopalethes. However, respondent continued to criticize the trooper’s “demeanor” during the traffic stop and the trooper’s apparent insensitivity to his wife’s “bathroom demands.” The letter concluded with respondent accepting responsibility for making the false statement against the trooper and acknowledging his wrongdoing.

During his subsequent June 2009 deposition, respondent no longer attributed a demeaning attitude to the trooper. He explained that he wasn’t trying to get back at the trooper, but that he just wanted the ticket dismissed. Respondent further stated that since he never filled out a formal complaint or form against the trooper, he never thought his writing that the trooper had used an ethnic slur would go anywhere except on a ticket processing pile, and that he had no logical reason for his decision to write the letter, just that it was “impulsive and emotional.” Regarding the telephone interview with Sgt. Koopalethes, respondent testified that he knew he had lied and was in trouble, and he repeated the lie because he was concerned about possibly being charged with perjury.

Dear’s license to practice law has been suspended for six months. This is a perfect example of why good police officers should welcome being recorded while doing their duties. False accusations against police officers are hardly uncommon and this provides evidence that helps discern between true and false allegations of misconduct. Only those who engage in misconduct have anything to fear from it.

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  • jamessweet

    Yup.

    I understand the impulse that makes even good cops want to oppose this sort of thing, I really do. If my employer announced they were going to put a camera in every office, I’d be furious; I’d probably quit.

    But police work is a distinctly different type of job. Let’s say, by way of thought experiment, that my employer was going to put a camera in every office but it had some magical technology that meant the camera would only activate when the odds of a crime being committed or investigated on camera were above a certain threshold. Nevermind the implausibility; it’s a thought experiment. If that were the case (and assuming I somehow really knew the camera would never be turned on at other times) I might feel differently.

    I think appropriate legal protections need to be put into place to shield cops from “fishing expeditions” or from an overzealous boss looking to improve productivity. They deserve privacy in their day-to-day work, as do us all. But because the likelihood of them encountering a crime or information relevant to a crime, it’s crucial to have a video record in place. That video record should only be retrievable by way of subpoena, to ensure that officers’ privacy is still intact. But once there’s a criminal investigation underway, crack the records and find out the truth!

  • RW Ahrens

    I don’t think that such video should be sealed, as video should only need to be recorded when the officer/s are in contact with the public, as in a traffic stop. Otherwise, no video is needed, nor should it be recorded. Not so much for privacy, as the normal patrol officer works in public, and there is no expectation of privacy in public, but simply because too much “noise” (or unnecessary) video would be produced.

    You only need to record what happens in an encounter with the public, both as a protection for the officer/s and the citizen/s as well.

  • jamesmc

    in my profession, we do have cameras in every “office.” i teach high school, and this year our local board decided to install them in each room, as well as in hallways. i admit, my initial reaction was irritation, feeling as though i was being treated as less than a professional; someone who had to be supervised at all times. i still feel that way, but the cameras also have benefits similar to those described in this post.

    in my case, during class i saw a student steal something from another student. when confronted, the thief became extremely self-righteous and belligerent, accusing me of being racist, prejudiced, unfair, etc, etc. he insisted we call his parents, and they joined in his attacks on me. then, we remembered the cameras and decided to roll the videotape. boy, that kid’s attitude changed in a hurry.

  • Artor

    There are a great many cameras now that record continuously, but overwrite themselves with a specifically timed delay. I think it would be good to have some such thing on cops at all times, and when they have an encounter with the public, be it a traffic stop, an arrest, a knock at a door or whatever, the scene and five minutes before & after are saved and dumped to a central (and civilian-managed) database. Then, if any dispute arises, those records can be subpoena’d for court cases, disciplinary review, or whatever.

    This would protect the cops from false allegations, would protect citizens from police abuse, and provide an excellent source for training, for gathering of statistics, news reports, etc.

    It’s such a no-brainer, there is no logical reason I can see to oppose it. Unless, of course, you’re a corrupt cop doing things you don’t ever want to see the light of day.

  • wscott

    @ RW & Artor: Patrol cops spend 90% of their shifts in contact with the public, so “only” recording those encounters isn’t going to save very much tape. And I don’t know how you’d automate that process anyway, which means you’d actually have to pay someone to go through the tapes and erase the boring parts. Easier & cheaper to just record everything, seal everything, and require a valid reason to open it, such as a complaint against the officer or other legitimate investigative need.

    I can certainly understand why cops, or anyone, would be reluctant to have their every action recorded. Recently in Denver we had a number of cops get in trouble for texting each other bitching about the Occupy protesters, their bosses, etc. Just the normal griping most of us engage in every day, but they didn’t know car-to-car texts were recorded, and the paper got hold of them. I certainly wouldn’t want to see my internal grousing on the front page of the paper.

    That said, I agree the public’s need for oversight should trump officer’s lack-of-comfort in this matter. And having talked to a few cops in Departments that do record everything (while they’re on patrol or out in the public), most of them swear by it and wouldn’t go back.

  • freemage

    jamesmc: I’ve occasionally daydreamed about having enough money to found my own private school (with a strong critical-thinking curriculum). I’ve usually included a ‘cameras in every room and hallway’, in part, because I’d want to be able to clear (or more rarely, nail) a teacher accused of wrongdoing.

  • Peter B

    Every officer who contacts the public should wear a video/audio recorder that CAN NOT BE TURNED OFF. Both staff meetings and bathroom breaks are recorded as well as public contact. The officer (and only the officer) has READ ONLY access to the recording for the purpose of preparing accurate reports. All such recordings are saved for a long time with suitable encryption to prevent improper use.

    If and only if an unassailable record is needed will the reverent portions of the recording be decrypted. Example: officer or department is being accused of inappropriate behavior.

    Relatively inexpensive hardware to do this exists today. The encryption needs to be done right.

    Some years ago I asked a BART* cop if he would willingly wear such a device. He replied something like this, “Hell yes. Then people would know about the crap we have to put up with.” Much of his problem was with the mentally challenged often homeless people attracted by San Francisco’s liberal policies.

    *BART: [San Francisco] Bay Area Rapid Transit

  • Pinky

    Dear’s license to practice law has been suspended for six months.

    I think the penalty is inappropriate. An officer of the court was willing to lie and ruin a peace officer’s name to get out of paying a $265 fine for speeding, what do you think his ethics would be in a felony case.

    I think an appropriate punishment would be triple the original fine ($795) and permanent loss of his license to practice law.

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