One of the basic questions many Americans are likely asking themselves lately is: why are there so many police shootings and killings of unarmed and non-threatening individuals? This question can partially be answered with another question: what do you think would happen if there was no video footage in these publicized cases? This second question has been completely overlooked by the mainstream media. In times past, when no such footage was available—a time prior to cell phones with the ability to record video—there was absolutely nothing to stop police from contriving a story in place of factual events.
Much of what we see today as outrageous acts committed by those who are supposed to protect us could have been falsely reported as a suspect pointing a gun at an officer, a suspect fleeing the scene, or some other fabricated act(s) prior to the advent of personal video recording devices and their widespread use. Although it may or may not be a majority of police who are bad, all it takes is a small number of them to behave improperly, and the result can be just as devastating as any other criminal, albeit by one carrying a badge. Because they are armed with tasers, guns, and other weaponry, it makes it that much easier for them to misuse deadly force.
Keep in mind that there are various levels at which police can act that are in direct opposition to their sworn duties and can range anywhere from less severe unprofessional acts, such as giving out false vehicular citations and refusing to stop and help a stranded motorist, to the most heinous—cold blooded murder. Undoubtedly, it might seem that the country as a whole is becoming jaded against the police; however, it is quite possible to be anti-police but still pro-policing.
As a nation, Americans are sick and tired of police senselessly killing innocent civilians. In just the past week, police fatally shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina. These killings add to a substantial list over the recent past of excessive use of force by police—in North Miami, for example, where they shot unarmed Charles Kinsey who was lying on the ground with his hands in the air.
After watching the video of the fatal encounter 40-year-old Crutcher had with Officer Betty Shelby, it seems apparent to an average person that there was no reason for the officer to have reacted with deadly force to an unarmed man with his hands raised. The hope is that law enforcement officials across the United States will use the Tulsa shooting as a launch pad to better train their own officers in de-escalation tactics and incentivize them to follow procedures and the law.
But the bigger question looms as to why this keeps happening. It's unacceptable and needs to be addressed and changed from the inside. With greater technology readily available to the majority of Americans, capturing senseless violence on video has helped to spread awareness and shed light on police brutality. It should also help put pressure on the government to improve policing policies.
However, for the second year in a row, state lawmakers in California failed to pass measures that would have provided statewide rules on body camera usage and informational disclosure, even as local police departments expanded their use of the technology. The Legislature is failing Californians on a crucial issue.
The bills that have failed in Sacramento mostly relate to the matter of transparency around body camera footage: who gets to view it and when and how it can be viewed. The bills that have died have looked at the issue from all sides. Some bills, such as AB1940, authored by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), would have allowed officers to view body camera footage before writing their police reports.
Other bills, for example, SB1286 from San Francisco’s Democratic State Sen. Mark Leno, would have opened investigation records, including body camera footage, to the public in police shootings and other serious use-of-force cases. What the failure of these bills to pass suggests is an unwillingness on behalf of the state Legislature to take a clear stand on the issue. Their actions are contrary to public safety and public policy. The Legislature should have passed Leno’s bill. California has some of the nation’s most restrictive laws when it comes to the release of information about police misconduct.
It’s no surprise that law enforcement groups prefer to limit transparency, but doing so erodes the public’s confidence. It also creates friction between law enforcement and the communities it is supposed to protect and serve. In fact, another important point that can be made, which has also been disregarded by the mainstream media, is that the country is rapidly reaching a never-ending spiral. In this downward trend, the public mistrusts the police more and more and will be less likely to obey them or stop for them, but instead more likely to run from them, which in turn will make police more aggressive and trigger-happy. Add to the mix people retaliating against law enforcement officers as we have seen many times in the recent past and the result mirrors a repulsive perpetual motion machine.
Body and dash cameras are important new technologies that have the potential to clarify controversial police encounters. The public has a right to see those videos, and the Legislature in California has denied them that opportunity for the second year in a row. This is unacceptable but can be changed by people who care enough to reach out to their state's elected officials and ask for a better option.
Our book, Stack the Legal Odds in Your Favor: Understand America's Corrupt Judicial System—Protect Yourself Now and Boost Chances of Winning Cases Later, discusses some of the issues relating to police brutality, excessive use of force, and using technology to help protect the American public when dealing with the legal system.