The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

We live in the in the country that invented the term first world. If you want you can have daily meals dropped at your doorstep by a flying robot. We seem to live in a time when any problem, no matter how big or small, can is solvable. Yet major problems still exist. Large deep scars of hatred, violence, and racism still exist in our nation. Ugly, purple, infectious wounds keeping us an uncivilized society. One of the ugliest and most visible is the problem with police brutality. The problem is a hard on to fix. The subject alone is inflammatory igniting emotions on both sides. 

It is hard to pin down how much of a problem police brutality is. Boys in blue are not exactly keeping records of beat downs. Research by Philip Stinson shows that many police shootings go investigated. Out of the 1100 deaths caused by police shootings, only 47 went to trial. Only 12 of those officers faced murder charges. 

Anecdotal evidence is there in spades. Shaky camera footage of a police officer shooting an unarmed civilian choke news feeds. Every day there is a new name to remember. A new death to tally. It is pervasive enough in our culture that when a TV show has a crooked cop, we do not bat an eye.  We half expect the officer to be corrupt.  


The most notable example of this problem in Rochester occurred on August 16th, 2016. Ricky Bryant age 17 was mistaken for a criminal and ‘subdued’ by twelve police officers. According to his lawyer, Charles Burkwit, the officers used tasers, pepper bullets, and mace. An internal RPD investigation is still pending on whether this was an acceptable use of force. Ricky Bryant walked away with a shattered eye socket among other injuries.


It allegedly took twelve grown adults armed to the teeth to subdue a seventeen-year-old boy. It is hard to find solid data on police misconduct. But this event shows we have a problem. Either the RPD is so inept that a teenager could fight off a small squadron. Or there is a problem of institutionalized brutality in our city. It is enough to raise the question: how do we make sure this never happens again?


It is a question that does not have an easy solution. Yelling ‘Fuck the police’ is simple, fun, but ineffective. Like them or not they are here to stay. If society could police itself they wouldn’t be here in the first place. We still need officers to protect and serve. 

You cannot oppose the police by force. When threatened by physical force a police force will defend itself. It will multiply in size, resources, and blood thirst until the threat becomes subdued. If recent North Dakota laws become precedent we will soon all be bringing bricks to a drone fight anyway. 

What you can do is hold them accountable to their own standards. The police force is part of a system. They have a series of laws to uphold and hundred of pages of procedure dictating how to do just that. When broken down it becomes like every other job. You do the job, to the standards set by law, or else you no longer have the job. Simple right?


But how do you pick the rotten cops out of the lineup? You can not go around firing every cop someone calls an asshole. That would lead to a McCarthy-style witch hunt. Civilian cellphone video has been instrumental in shedding light on brutality problems. When used as evidence in prosecution those same videos become unreliable. The video doesn’t always catch the entire altercation, leaving important information out. When the filming started could paint an imperfect picture of the actual events. All information and context stripped away making any footage useless. The footage becomes talking-head canon fodder. Pro-Police/Anti-Police camps will fight over context like half-starved coyotes over a chicken bone. 


Police body cameras shot into the public conversation in 2014. The debate began after the death of Micheal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) soon appeared to be a godsend solution. They maintain the benefits of civilian footage with the bias problem washed out. The BWC policies are a pragmatic approach to help officers and citizens alike. A study of the 100 most populous cities showed that 41 have BWCs in action, 25 plan to begin programs. 


The results have been good. In Rialto California had complaints against officers fall 88 percent in the first year. The use of force fell by 60 percent. Baltimore, who has been in the epicenter of this problem, has requested BWCs for their force. Rochester has begun to roll out BWCs earlier this year. Mayor Lovely Warren has touted the program as a top priority for police-community relations. The program has begun at a snail’s pace with only 33 out of 504 police officers equipped. 


The program has faced resistance since the start. Police Union President Micheal Mazzeo had a blunt statement for Wham13: ‘It is not working”. Mazzeo lamented problems with software, cameras, and storage. The lack of proper funding was also presented as a problem. Mazzeo has been on recorded calling the entire program ‘rushed’ and ‘cheap’.


These problems are more trivial hiccups than unscalable mountains. I expect a slow start to any program in Rochester, especially one of this size. Finding the proper equipment should not be a problem. BWC programs have been successful in dozens of other cities. A recent Radiolab ‘Eye in The Sky’ follows the story of Persistent Surveillance Systems. PSS is a company that offers aerial video support for police forces. Drones take 24 hr surveillance of whole sections of the city. This allows police to track criminals before and after the crime took place. If a company like PSS exists, it is safe to assume that the technology exists to run a project such as Rochester’s. The solution to the functionality problem has been available long before the program began.


Proper funding is a muddled issue. One camera company, VieVU, breaks down the cost installing their BWCs. Each police camera cost $199 plus $55 a month for data storage. VieVu estimates about $86,000 to get the ball rolling for 100 cameras. Rochester’s program will have 504 cameras in action. Using VieVU’s model the program should cost $27,700 per year with a $430,000 start up cost. This is a drop in the bucket for a department whose annual budget is 73 million dollars. The Department of Justice awarded Rochester with a grant of $600,000 for BWCs last year. Rochester should have everything it needs to make this work.


By hook or by crook this program is going to work. At some point in the future, every RPD officer is going to have a camera. This is a tremendous milestone in the fight for proper policing. The next milestone to strive for is proper legislation. Rochester is the famous Gilded City. The reality of our local politics rarely lives up to the fanfare. Those who want to end this program have already reared their heads. They will fight to neuter this program. The wording of these new laws needs to be clear. Individuals and organizations outside of the police force need to have access. Otherwise this whole project. The money, the time, the resources, has all been a waste. 


Current legislation is vague. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights gave it a poor review. They listed limited viewing options and poor footage protection as major concerns. RPD officers have to record all police activities and interactions with people. An individual may request to turn the camera off. But for anything major such as arrests and pursuit the camera stays on.  Police officers have access to the recordings from their cameras. Every Police Supervisor and Investigator will have access to the entire database. The RPD has the right to restrict access to the video is ‘sensitive or confidential’. 


Defendants may request the footage through the DA for prosecution purposes. They will not receive that footage if it is labeled sensitive. The only other option is to file a request under Freedom of Information Law. Replies to FOIL requests tend to have long wait times even if the city denies the request. Any police footage concerning Ricky Bryant’s case is currently being withheld by the RPD. The availability of footage to the public is strenuous and limited at best. Which defeats the whole point of the program to start with. If only police can view police footage what is the point? Leaving these designations vague only benefits those who wish to stop transparency. 


BWCs are not the end-all solution for our city’s problems. The way things are now problems will arise. Officers who are breaking the law will try to skirt this law. And the current laws protect them. We must be vigilant making sure police brutality videos do not get labeled under the sensitive or confidential. Camera’s will be turned off ‘by accident’, evidence withheld , things left out. It always has been and always will be. The machine needs to keep moving whether justice is served or not. If police could police themselves these cameras would not be necessary. The BWCs are a tool that we must use to police those who police us. If this tool fails we have only ourselves to blame.