Mimesis Law
27 May 2020

When David Brooks Left Mayberry Behind

Apr. 15, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — There isn’t much need for an explanation as to the positive reasons for cops to wear body cams.  They’re no panacea, but they clearly provide significant benefits both in reduction of use of force, as well as protection of officers from false claims.

Problems?  Sure. Privacy is a big one, though with millions of hours of video taken daily, it’s unlikely that much will surface, needlessly revealing people at their worst moments, that shouldn’t come to light for more substantive reasons.  Of course, that means we need to trust police to keep video of naked women private, rather than trade them amongst themselves or put them on the internet.

Can we trust the cops?  That’s a question raised by David Brooks in the New York Times, which he suggests is at risk from the very action of putting camera to cop.

Cop-cams chip away at that. The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional. Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care.

This strikes a chord, if you happen to live in Mayberry.  Many ridiculed Brooks’ naïveté for having missed the fact that the bond of trust he speaks of died when the smiling faces of Adam-12 were replaced by the masked faces of the SWAT Team, his nostalgic concern raises a serious question that begs for an answer.

Putting a camera on the police officer means that authority resides less in the wisdom and integrity of the officer and more in the videotape. During a trial, if a crime isn’t captured on the tape, it will be presumed to never have happened.

Why don’t the police, you know, the good cops everyone keeps talking about who are made to look bad by the bad cops we keep seeing on video doing terrible things to people, appreciate that the abuse, the violence and the misconduct undermine our faith in their “wisdom and integrity”?  Why don’t they do something to stop it?

There is an easy answer to this, that the good cops only exist in the memory of guys like Brooks. But that’s too facile, and not true.  Rather, the question must begin by defining good cop, and that’s not nearly as easy as it seems.

When a cop helps you, he’s the good cop. When he cuts you a break, he’s good. When a cop saves a kitten up a tree, or offers a cup of joe to a homeless person, we can happily applaud him.  But that’s the same cop who, given an invisible change in circumstance, will pull his trigger when he’s angry or frustrated. Maybe for good reason, or maybe because he lost his cool.

The good cop is the one who didn’t fire the eight bullets into the back of an unarmed man, but is he the cop who doctored his report to cover the killing or help his fellow officer by concealing the planted Taser?

We have this tendency, this need, to paint those we don’t understand as caricatures, one-dimensional beings who behave in good, or bad, ways.  Cops are people, and like the rest of us, engage in conduct worthy of commendation, as well as conduct they would prefer no one know about.

There is, of course, a difference when their conduct manifests as an abuse of the extraordinary authority we repose in them.  We give them a shield and gun, and the leeway to go out in public and use them as they see fit.  We entrust them with the power to take another person’s life, and in doing so, we expect them to wield that power wisely.

Does it really undermine that trust to ask them to wear a body cam, to provide us with more than their word as to what happened because we now know too much to go back to the days when Officer Friendly would never do wrong?  Cops don’t live under rocks, as much as they would love to believe they deserve the public’s trust.  They too see what’s happened, though they see it through their peculiar lens.

Putting a camera on a cop may well make the experience between police officer and citizen more “official,” in the sense that the human experience that could possibly transpire won’t play well upon review by superiors or the public.  Then again, cameras that capture a wise exercise of discretion have yet to cause any officer to suffer public condemnation.

Certainly, the possibility exists that a police officer will find the requirement that he wear a body cam an insult to his integrity, a challenge to his trustworthiness.  But then, if he’s really the good cop whose wisdom and integrity are above reproach, he will understand why society demands confirmation that he’s conducted himself in the manner we expect of him.

And if an officer is so deeply offended by being forced to wear a body cam, perhaps the only rational conclusion we can draw is that this is the cop we desperately need to keep an eye on, before the video shows us what the cop doesn’t want us to see.

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