Video Killed Trust in Police Officers

Recordings of police brutality have undermined the public's perceptions of law enforcement—and changed how Americans see "good cops" and "bad cops."
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Until I was 11, I trusted police officers, for reasons that Hans Fiene captures in The Federalist. "For many conservatives, especially those of us living in nice, comfy suburbs, it’s hard to apply the 'power corrupts' doctrine to law enforcement because we’ve never seen corrupted enforcers of the law," he writes. "We’ve never been wrongly arrested. We’ve never witnessed our children put in jail based on the false reports of police officers. We’ve never seen our neighbors beaten or tased without cause. And in the extremely unlikely scenario that a police officer drove into our neighborhood and murdered our unarmed friend in cold blood, we cannot possibly fathom a scenario where the justice system wouldn’t be on our side and where that police officer wouldn’t spend the rest of his life in jail."

Personal experience shapes attitudes more powerfully than anything else. But it wasn't a run-in with the law that changed me. Video killed my trust in police officers. On March 3, 1991, or shortly thereafter, I watched a TV news report like this one:

Until that day, my 11-year-old's notion of race in America included an awareness  of slavery, which seemed like ancient history; knowledge of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as venerated heroes from the distant past; and the Cosby family from the eponymous TV show, who established my notion of a contemporary black family. Then the Rodney King beating happened an hour's drive from my house, and less than six months later, after an overwhelmingly white jury acquitted the police officers who did the beating, the L.A. riots began. These events forced suburban Californians my age to confront parts of reality we'd never imagined. I couldn't grok why police officers would attack a man like that, or how a jury could acquit them, but I'd seen it with my own eyes. The incident didn't turn me against all law enforcement, but I started to believe that there were good cops and bad cops. Soon after, I was in the car with my mom when she got pulled over for a speeding ticket and wondered, slightly fearfully, if we'd get a bad cop. The officer turned out to be perfectly polite, of course. I didn't yet understand that he might or might not have behaved the same if we'd been a black family. 

As events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold, several observers have noticed that "this time is different." Unlike during past instances of police officers killing or assaulting young black men in suspicious though not yet demonstrably criminal circumstances, some prominent conservatives are doubting the official police narrative or criticizing their militarized response to protesters. Some attribute this to a growing libertarian influence in the GOP, and it's no accident that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has offered one of the strongest calls for police reform.

A poll from last year on partisan differences in trust for the police (Gallup)

My colleagues Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat persuasively argue that falling crime has made the American public less inclined to reflexively side with police, which has changed political incentives. Douthat posits that this is a generational shift.

But when it comes to how reflexively or instinctively cops are presumed to be truthful and honorable, the importance of video shouldn't be discounted. A generation ago, footage of police officers in the Deep South turning snarling dogs and firehoses on Civil Rights protesters made a deep impression on my parents, even though they grew up a continent away in an overwhelmingly white suburb where their personal experiences would've made police behaving that way seem unfathomable. Watching Jim Crow's enforcers with their own eyes couldn't be ignored. If anyone thought in 1991 that such brutality was a vestige of the past, or something that could only happen among racist cops in the South, the Rodney King tape disabused them of that notion, kicking off an era of cheap, increasingly ubiquitous recording equipment that was bound to capture more police misbehavior.

Of course young people growing up with YouTube will trust police officers less. The many videos of brutality don't lie—and they confirm that, sometimes, cops do lie. 

Even more often, they hold their tongues.

"Most police officers are good cops and good people. It is an unquestionably difficult job, especially in the current circumstances," Senator Paul wrote in his op-ed. "There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement." He went on to talk about police militarization. But there is another systemic problem in law enforcement. Even good people in uniform routinely fail to report on bad colleagues. They don't engage in certain unsavory behavior themselves. But when other cops do, they look the other way. Nearly every law enforcement agency in America has within its ranks an unofficial code of loyalty to good and bad officers alike.

This is evident in the Rodney King tape. As Peter Jennings said way back in 1991, it was "a story that might never have surfaced if someone wouldn't have picked up his home video camera"—a judgment he rendered, and that we all know to be true, despite the fact that there weren't just five officers beating on King, there were also numerous other police officers standing around watching. This is a pattern that repeats itself again and again in documented instances of police abuse. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has addressed the canard that black people ignore black-on-black violence. I'd only add that I've heard a lot more denunciations of black-on-black violence from black people, black leaders—hell, even black rappers—than I've heard rank-and-file police officers denouncing "blue-on-black" or even "blue-on-white" violence perpetrated by fellow officers. The only such statements I can ever recall came from police brass under political pressure to distance themselves from underlings caught misbehaving. I don't necessarily think police officers are less likely than people in other professions to tell on misbehaving colleagues. But the stakes are rather different, and their job is to enforce the rules, even when fellow officers break them.

Take another look at the police officer who pepper-sprayed the peaceful student protest at UC Davis. Eventually he lost his job for this act, after months of near universal denunciation. But instead of watching him this time, look at how many of his colleagues are standing around, some of them averting their eyes, none objecting:

Take another look at the moment when NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Balonga pepper-sprays a small group of captive women already corralled by other officers:

That is a man supremely confident that his nearby NYPD colleagues will neither stop him nor file a complaint about his abuse of protestors who posed no threat to anyone. But for the fact that he was caught on video he never would've been disciplined.

Heather MacDonald of City Journal, who has reported on police departments all over the United States, regularly assures readers that the NYPD is one of the best in the nation. Yet when NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft spent months secretly recording evidence of legal violations and policy violations in the 81st precinct, he wasn't documenting behavior that had already been reported to internal affairs and investigated. Other cops were likely bothered by misbehavior that was going on. But he was the only one to expose it. Other police officers knew that if they objected aggressively they'd be risking their jobs, or their status among fellow officers, or their chances for advancement, so they kept quiet. That doesn't make them bad people. It does make them an illustration of why police officers cannot be reflexively trusted by the public: powerful incentives regularly cause them to show greater loyalty to colleagues than the public, a pattern that exists in just about every institution. Police officers should be no more and no less trusted than Catholic priests, Penn State football coaches, or GM recall managers.

Yet they're often afforded a presumption that their version of events is true, no matter how many times individual cops are caught falsifying reports or lying on the stand. 

In that item from The Federalist quoted at the beginning of this article, Hans Fiene urges conservatives who reflexively trust the police to show a bit more skepticism. "Police brutality is not the Bogeyman," he writes. "It’s not an urban legend witnessed by none but told by many. It’s not a myth created by a primitive tribe that is too simple to understand the true source of the brokenness in its communities. Black people believe in police brutality for the same reason they believe in rain—because they’ve felt it ... For those of us who have never experienced law enforcement corrupted by power, basic human decency should require that we try to understand and consider the perspective of those who have..."

That's true. But trusting that minority groups aren't fabricating police misconduct isn't even as necessary as it was for, say, the white suburbanite of 1985, limited by what he'd seen with his eyes, read in the local paper, or watched on CBS. Any doubt that excessive force by law enforcement is a widespread problem can now be laid to rest in a single hour with nothing more than access to YouTube.

Start here or here or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. If you keep searching, you'll come to the conclusion that this sort of violence is epidemic long before you run out of video confirmation. Then remember the vast majority of these incidents are never videotaped. 

The answer isn't to stop respecting all police officers, or to assume that any allegation of police misconduct is true. Even officers involved in suspicious killings, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, deserve a fair hearing from the public. No one knows for sure what happened when Mike Brown was killed, and while the reaction of local police to protesters does not inspire confidence, the objective ought to be an impartial, accurate investigation by a credible, independent party.

But in the age of YouTube and Google, where police brutality can be seen from the comfort of one's home, along with documentation from dozens of serious law enforcement scandals, there is no longer any valid excuse for being blind to bad cops generally, or denying the possibility that an officer could have callously killed an unarmed man. 

In my generation, an increasing number of people will reach the conclusion that when a dispute arises pitting the word of law enforcement against the word of the policed, they ought to be on equal footing—disputes should be adjudicated by dispassionately weighing the available evidence, not reflexively giving police officers a benefit of the doubt that their profession, as a collective, has not earned (although you wouldn't know it from police brass, judges, and district attorneys). As the police continue to lose the trust of the public, due largely to documented instances of bad behavior by fellow officers, as well as law enforcement's longstanding inability to police themselves, I suspect that more and more good cops will be clamoring for cameras on their dashboards and lapels. Until then, citizens ought to record police during every incident as it unfolds. Doing so will bring vindication to good cops and indictments of bad cops. 

Don't trust. Verify.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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