On this blog, I've posted quite a few videos of cops behaving badly. There was the case of Brian Sterner, who was dumped from his wheelchair by sheriff's deputies, Eric Bush, who was roughed up by a Baltimore police officer, Hope Steffey, who was stripped naked by a mixed-sex gang of uniformed miscreants and Jared Massey who was tasered for asking questions of a police officer during a traffic stop.
In all cases, these incidents came to public attention, resulting (usually) in disciplinary action of some sort for the officers involved, because the victims, their friends or the press posted video to the Internet where people could judge official conduct for themselves -- and were overwhelmingly horrified. In all but one instance, the video posted to the Internet came from official sources: jailhouse surveillance cameras in the Sterner and Steffey incidents, a patrol car's dashboard camera in the Massey case. Only the video of Eric Bush came from an independent source -- a camera held by one of Bush's friends.
This isn't exactly a scientific survey of the sources of video evidence of official misbehavior, but it is an indication that, wonders of the distributive potential of the Internet aside, much evidence of cops (and others) behaving badly comes from video recordings made by the police themselves. The reasons are obvious: in many circumstances (such as in a jail facility) it's extremely unlikely that private citizens will have access to recording equipment; even in public, most people don't usually carry video cameras (although as such cameras become smaller, cheaper and deliberately distributed for the purpose of monitoring police, they're increasingly ubiquitous). Even when private citizens do have the means to record police behavior, officers abusing their authority are unlikely to stop short of confiscating evidence of that abuse. In fact, just such a seizure of video evidence by New Orleans police is the subject of a lawsuit filed this past December.
Sometimes the attack on private recording is more direct and official. Pennsylvanian Brian Kelly briefly faced up to ten years in prison under an old wiretapping law for recording police with a handheld camera before the Cumberland County District Attorney backed off under public pressure. Mary T. Jean faced a similar battle with Massachusetts authorities after posting video of an illegal search on her Website; she finally won her case in federal court. It's no purely American phenomenon either: Last year, France passed a law that effectively outlaws recording police conduct and publicizing such recordings.
That means that much of the effort to publicize misbehavior by police and other government officials is likely to remain dependent on the willingness of the authorities to record their activities, preserve those recordings and release them to the public. So far, despite growing awareness of the potential of YouTube and other online resources to make private behavior very public, authorities have, time and again, proven their willingness to engage in violent, stupid and otherwise illegal behavior with government-owned cameras pointing directly at them. The offenders may simply be so accustomed to the cameras in question that they just become part of the background, or they're so used to behaving outrageously that they forget their actions are widely considered unacceptable. Or maybe we're just seeing uniformed abusers who lie on the wrong side of the bell curve and the smart ones are clever enough to evade cameras.
But, at some point, officials are going to realize that their own surveillance cameras are increasingly getting them into trouble. Ideally, this will result in a reduction in the sort of bad behavior that invariably winds up on the Internet. I'm not going to hold my breath. More likely, authorities will become cannier about where they commit their abuses -- assaulting prisoners out of sight of cameras, for instance. They may also backtrack on their willingness to be recorded at all. And they'll probably attempt to control the release of any video evidence that is captured, through new laws, sabotage of recordings, or failure to comply with requests for records. That's already happening; Jared Massey had to unscramble the video of his arrest that he received from the Utah Highway Patrol, while Arizona's own Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes a sport of ignoring public records requests that aren't backed by (expensive) court orders.
But I'm not suggesting that video and the Internet revolution aren't good things or that they aren't having an effect. On the margins, some cops will think twice before punching kids in public or searching homes without warrants. They'll never know for sure that they won't end up as the next Internet celebrity, with career death or even criminal charges as the booby prize.
And members of the tax-paying public, at long last, are able to see for themselves what the powerless long knew: that agents of the state are often prone to behaving like members of a criminal gang -- one that offers salary, power and privilege. Opening people's eyes is a major accomplishment all by itself.