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Commentary

Train an Impartial Eye on Police Behavior

Departments should routinely use videotape.

July 12, 2002|FRANKLIN E. ZIMRING | Franklin E. Zimring is a professor of law at Boalt Hall and director of the Criminal Justice Research Program at UC Berkeley.

Saturday's videotaped beating of a handcuffed 16-year-old in Inglewood would be a pretty big story in any town, but it strikes with a special sense of deja vu in Southern California, where the Rodney King videotape exposed citizens to city policing at its very worst.

With that history, the natural first question is whether this case is another King episode. The answer is no.

The King case was the result of an organized culture of recreational police violence. The Inglewood incident isn't that, but it may ultimately teach us more important lessons about the problem of excessive force by police and the prospects for its control.

The beating of Donovan Jackson was similar to the King disaster in two respects. Both beatings grew out of police-citizen encounters where some use of force by the police was authorized to restrain or to arrest. In such cases, the issue is not whether force is authorized but how much force is reasonable in the specific circumstances. This is a judgment call, and the officer usually gets the benefit of the doubt if there are conflicting versions of events. The second similarity is that videotaping by a citizen is the only reason each case received wide attention.

In a conflict over the use of force on a suspect who provokes an officer (in this case, the officer says the youth grabbed his testicles), usually it is the police version that is accepted.

Unless other officers complain--and this doesn't happen much--the system resolves doubts in favor of the only official version of the facts.

But the video record of events is more than a tiebreaker. Because of Saturday's tape, there is no dispute about whether the victim's injuries came after or before he was handcuffed, and there is no doubt that force is used long after there is any evidence of resistance.

Yet the differences between the Jackson case and the King case are just as important as the similarities.

Assuming the worst about the officer's conduct in Jackson, the beating administered and the injuries inflicted on King were much more serious than those suffered in last week's episode. Jackson was treated and released at the hospital; King was beaten almost to death.

Both may be examples of excessive force, but I would much rather be at the receiving end of the injuries that happened Saturday. And the extent of the damage done in these two attacks is probably an accurate measure of the intention of the attackers. If the King case rates a 10 on the scale of police abuse, this latest episode can rate no higher than a three or four.

A second major difference is that Saturday's force was the product of a single police officer, while the King beating was the concerted action of a group of police officers egging each other on. There was nothing subtle about the King case.

I do not mean to suggest that we should worry less about the garden-variety overreactions of police officers in the apparent pattern of Saturday's events. It is such closer-to-the-line cases of excessive force that happen most often, that are hard to detect and that are the most difficult to control. Close cases of excessive force injure many more citizens than gangster cops, and controlling the behavior of police in close cases is not just a matter of getting rid of the worst cops. How can we make the close calls? How can we monitor tens of thousands of police on the streets?

One promising way to monitor police-citizen encounters is with inexpensive, easy-to-use self-activating video cameras. Some police departments are using them experimentally. There is, in 2002, no excuse for conducting a police station interrogation without a video camera as a silent witness to the proceedings. Street policing will be harder to record; police cars with camera equipment will not capture all of the critical interactions of police on patrol. But the use of cameras would constitute a vast improvement on our current capacity to observe police field behavior and to evaluate police use of force.

Force is an inherent part of modern policing. Most of the time when citizens and cops disagree, the video camera will be the police officer's friend. Routine recording of police conduct will provide a powerful tool for assessing police behavior. There is no reason to leave the recording of police-citizen interactions to chance.

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