Cops on Recording Cops

From Radley Balko.

Over the weekend I linked to an excellent essay from a police officer explaining why good cops have no need to worry about citizen-shot video.

Jonathan Last now points to a less encouraging blog entry on the same topic, from a guy who claims to be a Chicago police officer:

Once again, it falls to the sane who walk among the thin blue line to point out that these provide exactly the same amount of “protection” to officers as our Blue Light Cameras offer to the citizenry – that is to say, “none.” This device is a witness that might provide assistance in the event of a bad beef in Oakland, but we can still count on one hand exactly how many prosecutions have been brought against bad beefers who have lied on sworn affidavits against CPD members.

And you can also can count on one hand the number of times a cop has been prosecuted—or even disciplined—after citizen-shot video showed him to have lied in a police report. Or the number of cops who have been prosecuted for destroying citizen cameras or deleting videos in jurisdictions where such recordings are legal.

And while it may be true that citizens shown to have lied in a sworn complaint against an officer are rarely prosecuted, it’s also true that CPD doesn’t take complaints all that seriously, even after a number of high-profile excessive force incidents in recent years. From an article I wrote a couple years ago:

The most famous incident was footage of an off-duty cop viciously beating a female bartender who refused to continue serving him in 2007. He wasn’t even charged until three months later, after the surveillance video surfaced on the Internet, generating worldwide outrage. There are other examples: six cops beating two men in a bar brawl; a video of a fatal police shooting in a subway station where officer accounts of the incident don’t match the video footage. The department also recently disciplined two officers after a video showed up on the Internet showing a Chicago PD unit posing for a trophy photo with a protester they had apprehended earlier this year at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

This is a police department still under federal investigation for an officer-run torture ring in the 1980s and, more recently, for a major scandal in which officers in the department’s Special Operations Unit—alleged to be made up of the city’s most elite and trusted cops—have been convicted of a variety of crimes, including home robberies, theft, physical abuse and intimidation, and even planning a murder. The “best of the best” unit was disbanded last year.

A 2008 study by University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman found 10,000 complaints filed against Chicago police officers between 2002 and 2004. That’s more than any city in the country, and proportionally it’s 40 percent above the national average. Of those 10,000 complaints, just 19 resulted in significant disciplinary action. In 85 percent of the cases, the complaint was dismissed without even interviewing the accused officer. The study also found that about 5 percent of the department’s 13,500 officers accounted for more than half the complaints.

Yet the Chicago PD recently went to federal court—and won—to prevent the release of the names of 662 officers who had more than 10 citizen complaints filed against them between 2001 and 2006. Even members of the city’s Board of Aldermen aren’t allowed to see the officers’ names.

Now, the police department is working to become even less accountable. Last October, a study from the Chicago Justice Project found that on those rare occasions when Chicago police brass want to fire an officer, the Chicago Police Board—the agency that oversees the department—nearly always overrules them.

Not to mention the petulant reaction from Chicago cops and their union when Officer William Cozzi given prison time after he was caught on tape beating a man handcuffed to a wheelchair.

I should add when I’ve talked about this issue on radio call-in shows, I’ve heard from a lot of cops who take the less hostile, more encouraging position on this issue articulated in that first link. I’ve received lots of email from cops in the same vein. Most who say they’re fine with it say they’re fine with it because they’re good cops, and because citizen video is far more likely to protect them against false accusations than to incriminate them.

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