For decades, Americans have been told by police at local and Federal levels: If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t worry about giving up your privacy.
The FBI, for example, has lobbied Congress for an electronic “key” that would allow it to enter a cyber “back door” to eavesdrop on even those emails protected by encryption systems.
Of course, the FBI has long found ways to circumvent the efforts of criminals to remain anonymous.
Decades ago, Mafiosi learned to assume their phones were being wiretapped and their rooms bugged with hidden microphones by agents of the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
And law-abiding Americans have grown used to being under camera surveillance every time they enter a bank, a State or Federal agency, a drugstore or supermarket. Or even walking down a street.
So it must seem ironic–if not downright hypocritical–to such people when police complain that their privacy is being invaded.
And this “invasion” isn’t happening with taps placed on cops’ phones or bugs planted in their police stations or private homes.
No, this “invasion” is happening openly in public–with video cameras and cellphones equipped with cameras.
And it’s happening in direct response to a series of controversial incidents involving the use of deadly force by police.
The most famous of these was the shooting, in August, 2014, of strong-arm grocery store robber Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Ironically, this was not captured on video.
But a number of other incidents were. Among them:
- The shooting of Walter Scott, a black motorist, on April 4, 2015. Scott was stopped for a non-working third tail light. When North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager returned to his patrol car, Scott exited his car and fled. Slager gave chase, firing first a Taser and then his pistol. He hit Scott five times–all from behind. Slager later claimed he had “felt threatened.” Unluckily for him, the shooting was caught on a citizen’s cellphone camera. On June 6, a grand jury indicted Slager on a charge or murder.
- On April 9, 2015, San Bernaradino sheriff’s deputies, after an exhaustive chase, kicked Francis Pusok twice–including a kick to the groin–as he lay facedown on the ground with his hands behind his back. About five minutes after Pusok was handcuffed, hobbled and rolled onto his side, another deputy also kicked him. Three deputies have been charged with felony assault. The footage of this came from an NBC News helicopter.
- In February, 2015, Orlando police officer William Escobar was fired after cell phone footage emerged of him punching and kicking a handcuffed man.
Addressing a forum at the University of Chicago Law School on October 23, FBI Director James B. Comey spoke of rising crime rates in America. And he offered a series of possible reasons for it.
“Maybe it’s the return of violent offenders after serving jail terms. Maybe it’s cheap heroin or synthetic drugs. Maybe after we busted up the large gangs, smaller groups are now fighting for turf.
“Maybe it’s a change in the justice system’s approach to bail or charging or sentencing. Maybe something has changed with respect to the availability of guns….”
Then Comey offered what he thought was the real villain behind the rise in crime: Cellphones aimed at police.
FBI Director James B. Comey
“But I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you….
“In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?
“I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.’
“I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.
“So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country.
“And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
Apparently, it’s OK for police to aim cameras–openly or concealed–at citizens, whether law-abiding or law-breaking. But if citizens aim cameras at cops–even without interfering with their making arrests–police feel threatened, to the point of refusing to carry out their duties.