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Your Rights or Mine?

There has been a lot of debate lately about the right to video tape public servants, specifically police officers.  Everybody has a video camera in their pocket these days and within minutes an amateur video can be distributed on the Internet for the world to see.  Many are saying that the taping of a police officer is currently prohibited because it violates wiretap law. The wiretap law states that both parties involved in a private conversation must give their consent in order for it to be recorded. The question is whether a police officer who is questioning or arresting someone is engaged in a private conversation.  Isn’t that a public act? Police officers make the choice to become public servants. Doesn’t that choice carry it with it the inference that their professional right to privacy ends when in the best interest of the rights of those they serve?  The court systems are seeing case after case where they have to decide just that.

A capture from a video Anthony Graber made during a traffic stop by Maryland state trooper Joseph D. Uhler in March 2010.

Recently a man by the name of Anthony Graber, a Maryland Air National Guard staff sergeant, was pulled over for speeding. The officer cut him off in an unmarked vehicle and then came towards him with a gun brandished before identifying himself as an officer. Graber taped the encounter and posted it on the Internet.  In retaliation police arrested him, searched his residence and seized his computers. He is now up on charges of wiretapping which could put this young serviceman, husband, and father in jail for up to sixteen years. (Recent rulings indicate this sentence is extremely doubtful but the very possibility is frightening.) Unfortunately Gruber’s experience is far from isolated.

Imagine for a moment that every single day you dealt with horrible people at work. I am not talking about the coworker who steals your Diet Cokes from the fridge.  I am talking about drug dealers, murderers, thieves, and people who hurt children. Would you be able to keep your cool if you were spit on, hit, shot at, cursed at, and threatened? Could you do it… day after day after day… or would you snap?  Every day our police officers are asked not just to maintain their professionalism, but to risk their lives to keep our streets safe.  Most of them do.  They are heroic and selfless.

But some of them don’t. What about that small percentage of rogue officers…the ones who confuse enforcing the law with being the law?  Videotaping keeps those in authority from abusing their power and provides credibility for those who find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. Think about Kent State, Tiananmen Square, and Rodney King. What if those events had not been caught on film? Would you have believed they really happened? The recent upsurge in amateur videos have helped to ensure the accountability of law enforcement. They have been used to rid the force of people who have absolutely no business wearing a police uniform.

Videotaping has the potential to protect those in authority from themselves. Think about the officers who have done the right thing year after year and cross the line one day. Maybe the knowledge they are being videotaped will be just enough to keep them from stepping over the edge and ruining a spotless career.

If an officer has nothing to hide, then being taped can only help prove their innocence if the other side of a volatile situation ends in accusations of abuse. This is just what happened in the case of Johannes Mehserle who was charged with the murder of an unarmed and handcuffed 22-year-old train passenger. His offense was reduced to involuntary manslaughter after the examination of six separate videos taken by bystanders which supported his claim that he meant to draw his stun gun, but tragically drew his 40-caliber handgun instead.

Are there problems with videotaping? Sure. One angle of the video camera or one isolated segment can skew the facts. No form of testimony is flawless. The negative images on the Internet represent a small percentage of the police force, but have the potential to erode the public’s trust in law enforcement as a whole. Luckily the police force has a Public Relations team to handle such things. The fear of public perception or retribution might even cause an officer to hesitate when facing a life-threatening situation, but I doubt it. Our officers are extremely well trained in regards to handling emergency situations.

Madam de Stael established a good rule of thumb back n the 1700’s: “If man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened”. Videotaping is one such check. So next time you see a police officer thank them, but you might be wise to turn your video camera on just in case.

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