Saturday, June 13, 2015

Democracy and Freedom by the Megapixel

So it begins...
Racial hatred is America's original sin. And despite years of struggle, of changing laws and social mores, it seems every bit as entrenched in American society as it was during reconstruction. All of the key institutions - law enforcement, corrections, health care, education - seem unable to function in such a manner that they serve the entire population equally and fairly. Nothing - no force, no eloquent oratory, no law, no social expectation - has been able to create significant change. America has remained stubbornly racist, and virulently un-equal. It seemed as if nothing could force white America to live according to the values they claimed.

Then, in the summer of 2007, in a seemingly utterly unrelated event, Apple released the first iPhone. As kind of a throw-in, it included a digital camera, a feature that every smartphone that followed felt obliged to include. Of course, smartphones became ubiquitous - no one can even imagine ever being more than an arms reach away from one. And as a result, people began to capture all sorts of news and events in real time, in high definition. Car crashes, gunfights, plane crashes, factory explosions - and yes, law enforcement.

Suddenly, starting largely with the video of Rodney King in 1991 - long before the advent of the smartphone, but the beginning of a trend that is now completely universal - the way the world viewed the actions of the police in the streets was no longer strictly defined by the police department's own narrative. There was an objective view of what happened. And sure, even with the video evidence the police were seldom, if ever, held accountable - the history of their immunity from prosecution was (and remains) strong - but in recent years we've seen an accelerating pace of horrific, nauseating murders and assaults by law enforcement against the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. And that steady drumbeat of police violence against their community is starting to turn public opinion, and judicial outcomes are starting to change.

There were several tipping points, all in close proximity. There was Ferguson, MO - not just the original murder of Michael Brown, but even more the violent, out of control response to the protests that followed. The military dress, the weapons, the body armor, the armored vehicles, the refusal to identify themselves, the arrest of journalists -  it all served to frighten and outrage many Americans. There was the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. And then, perhaps the most important event was the video recording of the slaying of Walter Scott. The killer, Officer Michael Slager, originally claimed that Scott had grabbed his Taser and he therefore feared for his life. In the video, we see him shooting the fleeing suspect multiple times and then planting his Taser next to the body. The sense that the lies and justifications after outright murders are routine was unavoidable.

But no working law enforcement officer can pretend that they are operating under the same kind of information asymmetry they have had for years. They are surrounded by video cameras, and they cannot ever assume that their actions are not being recorded. Courts and judges are having an increasingly hard time accepting the old narratives when confronted by the shocking video images. And prosecutors are under pressure to act on behalf of their constituencies, not on behalf of police privilege.

This is the rare case of a technology driving profound societal change. This trend is only going to continue, and Police Departments, Academies and street-level leadership are going to be forced to change the way they do their jobs. The unavoidable ubiquitousness of video recording devices isn't all good, and has many worrisome components, but the way it is changing the most toxic behaviors that are the lived experience of so many Americans is a wonderful thing to see.

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