FTP: Film Tha Police
by Jon Moran
Would body cameras worn by police officers have prevented the beating of John Willet?
Buffalo Police Officer John Cirulli has been suspended without pay after a cell phone video was released last Monday that showed him exercising excessive force against 22-year-old John Willet. Five officers have also been placed on paid administrative leave for not stepping in when Cirulli brutalized a handcuffed, submissive Willet.
The video, which lasts a minute and 20 seconds, shows Cirulli kicking and punching a restrained, submissive Willet. Pleading cries of “Please stop!” and “I’m sorry!” are heard from Willet at first, only to be silenced by the force of Cirulli’s knee against Willet’s throat. Willet is currently seeing a specialist to treat injuries sustained from the brutality.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said at the April 28 press conference that the incident began when Willet fled by foot from police after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Willet was later found to have drugs in his possession and in his vehicle. He was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest.
Reverend Al Sharpton covered the incident on his show Politics Nation and posed an important question: “Does the video tape make the difference here? We hear about alleged police brutality often, and nothing is done.”
At the press conference, Derenda was asked his feelings about the “movement to capture things on video when police are involved,” to which he replied, “Cameras are a good thing.”
“People should be aware that [cameras are] out there, and [inappropriate] action, whether they’re on video or not, can’t be condoned, will not be tolerated, plain and simple,” he said.
The officers involved in the Willet situation were aware that the incident was being recorded and tried to destroy the recording, according to the person who captured the cell phone video.
“[An officer] told me ‘Give me your phone or delete the video, or I’m going to take your phone as evidence,’” the unnamed cameraman told WIVB. “He says, ‘Just delete it.’ I’m like ‘Okay.’ I grabbed my friend’s phone and I [pretended to delete] it. And I showed it to him. He said, ‘Thank you very much.’ He checked it to make sure it was gone. He said ‘Thank you very much’ and he left.”
After the cameraman’s story was made public, another anonymous citizen went to WIVB with a similar story about the BPD’s handling of citizen journalism. She claimed that while she was filming a fight on Chippewa Street after this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an officer demanded she turn her phone over to him as evidence. When she declined, he knocked it out of her hand and stomped on it with his foot. She took her phone from beneath his boot and fled.
People are allowed to film whatever they please in public areas, including police, provided the video isn’t part of a crime. Willet’s attorney, Phillip Dabney, Jr., called the requests to delete the video evidence “unreasonable.’ “I certainly have the right to record in public on my own device,” he said. “This is an example of officers going beyond the bounds of the law.”
The people interviewed by WIVB, through deceit or direct refusal, were able to retain the videos they took of police actions. But not everybody can stand up to an officer’s intimidation. Applications like Ustream, Livestream, and Bambuser allow users to stream content from their mobile device directly to the web, securing video evidence regardless of what attempts authorities make to confiscate or destroy it. These apps proved essential in documenting the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements.
According to Derenda, two other videos of the incident were recorded and are being reviewed—one from a surveillance camera on the corner of Philadelphia and Ontario streets and the other from the security camera of a nearby business. It’s doubtful, however, that those videos would have seen the light of day had a third-party recording not been made public.
Police surveillance is essential to a working democracy, but the responsibility of it shouldn’t fall on citizens. More and more, police departments are issuing officers wearable cameras that can be attached to lapels, sunglasses, and helmets to record police interactions with the public.
In February 2012, body cameras were introduced to the officers of the Rialto, California police department. Half the officers were equipped with the cameras, which officers have the ability to turn on or off, with a 30-second delay. According to the New York Times, “the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.”
Making officers aware that their actions are being recorded has been shown to weed out the kind of force practiced by officers on a power trip, as opposed to the kind of force that’s actually necessary to catch perpetrators. While the use of force in Rialto dropped drastically after the officers were equipped with cameras, in every instance of violence that did occur the officers chose to keep their cameras on, because they knew they were taking necessary action.
Rialto certainly isn’t the only place to start strapping their officers with cameras—they’ve been implemented in cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. The measure is being welcomed with open arms in Connecticut, where East Haven Police Lieutenant David Emerman told NBC News he thinks body cameras are “a protective measure for the officers who are out of the road. It captures an accurate representation of what really happened.”
Officers on the force in New Haven, Connecticut, didn’t have a problem with the cameras, either.
“They feel it will protect them as they’re doing their job, and they’re conducting themselves in a professional manner,” Emerman said.
About eight miles east of New Haven, members of the Branford Police Department are also employing wearable cameras and seem to enjoy the benefits body cameras bring to officers as well as citizens.
“It has reduced all of our citizen complaints [so] that there has not been one sustainable complaint made against any of our officers,” Branford Police Captain Geoffrey Morgan told NBC News. “It’s probably one of the best investments and one of the best technologies that has come to policing during my tenure here.”
In Bremerton, Washington, Police Chief Steve Strachan hails wearable cameras as a new means of obtaining evidence.
“It’s for the very rare occasions when officers do something wrong so we can be accountable to the public, but also for the majority of cases when officers are doing the right things and to reduce complaints that might be bogus to show what really happened,” he told Q13FOX.
According to John Curr, Western Regional Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City may be next in line to implement body cameras as a result of the controversial ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy “and the general mindset that has stemmed from that.”
Of course, affixing a camera to police helmets isn’t necessarily a foolproof solution to the use of excessive force. Al Jazeera America has provided comprehensive coverage about the recent murder of a homeless veteran by members of the Albuquerque Police Department. The entire incident was recorded (bit.ly/1iBdEze) by a camera affixed to the helmet of one of the officers who shot the man. What more objective place to view a shooting than inches from the eye of the man who pulled the trigger? In the Albuquerque case, justice wasn’t served. But the images still exist and will shape public opinion.
John Willet claims his abuse at the hands of Buffalo cops didn’t end once the cell phone camera stopped recording; he says he was punched in the face three times in the back of the police car. Had a camera been affixed to the officers’ vests, the resulting footage would reveal whether he’s lying or telling the truth.blog comments powered by Disqus
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