Policing is anything but simple these days.
Policing in the 21st century has taken on some pretty complex and interesting tasks. We’ve gone from the cheery “constable” who used to walk down the sidewalk, twirling a baton, to a high-tech entity carrying things like TASER®s, body-worn cameras and weapons with laser sights. Our “control and regulation” is way beyond the simple scope of poking our head into the doors of shopkeepers and asking how their day is going. We investigate complex financial crimes; we track money with forensic accountants; we go undercover into electronic chat rooms to root out child sexual exploitation; and we use the latest in technology to find and collect evidence in crimes we could never have imagined just 50 years ago – human trafficking, illegal immigration, mass shootings, and more.
I will add a side note which I thought was interesting since I have been a recent visitor to Yosemite National Park. They were having a bear problem – not bears attacking humans, but bears getting hit by speeding cars. It seems that visitors have been lead-footing it through the park in the last couple of years. (I can’t figure this one out – I couldn’t slow down enough to enjoy the immense beauty of the place.) In 2017, 24 bears were hit in the park and four of them died. The National Park Service takes this very seriously and the park rangers are enforcing speeding with a sense of urgency. So, word to the wise: Slow down in Yosemite and enjoy the place, okay? Give the bears a break.
The real topic of this article is focused on the problem – yes, I said problem – of body cams and associated high-tech gear which has become commonplace among mandatory police equipment. In the past year, I have taught classes in Boston, Houston and Lansing on interview/interrogation and eyewitness identification to police professionals in those regions. Both of those classes involved discussions on interviewing skills, procedures and statement taking. What I found in all three geographic areas was that, for uniform and, sometimes, investigative personnel, witness “interviews” were pretty much the resulting footage taken from body cameras. The procedure of sitting down with a witness and conducting a real interview is being replaced by the rote recording of a tiny electronic device. The witnesses’ words – as well as the officers’ questions – are no longer separately articulated. They are, instead, part of a video clip, interspersed and woven into an often chaotic representation of everything else which was going on in the immediate environment at the time.
There are a number of reasons why this is problematic, not the least of which is the vast array of privacy and confidentiality issues which have sent lawyers racing for their law libraries to figure out just what stumbling blocks can crop up (or which they can create) with all this very discoverable material. Here’s an example:
Two officers, both wearing body cams, get called to a domestic dispute at an apartment building. The boyfriend and girlfriend are fighting and the girlfriend’s aunt and 12-year-old daughter are on the scene, too. The body cams capture everything, including the boyfriend shoving the girlfriend, just as officers arrive. But, the aunt and the 12-year-old are in the background of that clip, too. Is her face going to be on the final evidentiary production? What about the minor child? Their faces may have to be redacted. At what point is the video recording turned on and off? When the officers separate the two combatants, it shows the officer guiding the boyfriend to one corner of the room, holding him by the arm. The officer tells the belligerent dude to sit there and don’t move. Uh-oh, is that an arrest? Should the officer have Mirandized the boyfriend after telling him not to move? Before body cams, this would be a simple line in the report which read, “I then directed the boyfriend to a safer spot in the household so that the two could be separated.” But, now, you have a defense attorney licking his chops because he has a piece of evidence which shows something quite different, something with which he can make a lot of mischief. It also creates a lot of work for a new employee: a video editor who has to work with the police legal team and the prosecutor to carefully redact and edit the footage.
The examples, obviously, can go on and on, with a wide range of possibilities which can help or hinder our law enforcement efforts. I’m old-school and a big fan of getting meaningful information from people by moving them to a neutral area and getting them away from distractions. I like technology, too, but I don’t believe we should just run and hug it every time something new comes along. A couple of decades ago, I wrote in this magazine my concerns about laptops in patrol cars. I didn’t think they were so necessary that we should have them, so that officers on traffic stops can run tags and drivers’ licenses, looking down and away from the subject. Distractions are something patrol officers don’t need when they are dealing with the unknown.
Technology has done great things for law enforcement: DNA, computers, cell phones, and many other tools we must use to keep up with the ever-evolving world of high-tech criminal activity. Lawbreaking can be sophisticated these days and we have to be on par, if not more advanced, than the cyber bad guys hacking into financial data; the perverts cloaking their identity online to lure children into sexual situations; and the ambitious smugglers using computer controlled submarines to bring illegal drugs into the country.
What we cannot afford to do, though, is bend so easily to public pressure and get infatuated with the idea of “transparency” with the public to the point that they get to see everything we do, all of the time, and have it memorialized for lawyers to pick through later.
If we’re handed the keys to a high-tech vehicle, we can’t just go speeding through the future without regard for the consequences. We’ll end up hitting bears along the way.
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years in police work. He now owns his own private investigation agency, Nyberg Security and Investigations, and can be reached at Ramesh@NybergPi.com. He enjoys getting feedback from readers.