Monday, March 16, 2009


Video evidence

The Supreme Court has been asked to hear a case about a man who was subjected to a Taser because he sat on the ground, cuffed and crying, and wouldn’t stand up and walk to the arresting officer’s car. The situation was recorded by the officer’s dashboard camera, and posted on YouTube.

The focus of the article is about how video evidence affects our perception of the events differently from, say, witness testimony. This is from a part of the article that refers to a different video, from another case:

Three law professors accepted that invitation and made it the basis of an interesting study published in January in The Harvard Law Review. They showed the video to 1,350 people, who mostly saw things as the justices did. Three-quarters of them thought the use of potentially deadly force by the police was justified by the risk Mr. Harris’s driving posed.

But African-Americans, liberals, Democrats, people who do not make much money and those who live in the Northeast were, the study found, “much more likely to see the police, rather than Harris, as the source of the danger posed by the flight and to find the deliberate ramming of Harris’s vehicle unnecessary to avert risk to the public.”

Video creates a danger, the study said, of “decision-making hubris” by judges.

The implication is that people will see what they want to see in video evidence — that what they see in it will support their existing bias.

I find to the contrary with respect to the video in the case under petition now.

The video shows what is either appalling police brutality or a measured response to an arrested man’s intransigence — you be the judge.
Given how I feel about Taser use, well documented in these pages, you might think I’d howl “Appalling police brutality!” And I might do, if I were considering verbal testimony, where I was asked to believe what the officer had to say about the situation.

But the video shows things clearly. Far from being aggressive, unreasonable, and brutal, the officer is calm and respectful, and is trying to cope with a difficult situation. He is talking with Mr Buckley, trying firmly but calmly to get Mr Buckley’s cooperation. Consequently, I have respect for the officer and for how he’s trying to handle things. I think he believes he did the right thing, and I’m sure he’s supported by his department’s policy.

Yet I still think he’s wrong.

Mr Buckley is clearly no threat to the officer, and the only real problem here is that it’s wasting the officer’s time. Allowing someone who’s obviously genuinely upset the time to calm down and collect himself is a humane thing to do. Of course, no one wants to sit around with a crying man waiting for it to pass. But it will pass, and undoubtedly more quickly without the electric shocks, which can only serve to make things more tense and upsetting.

And then there’s the fact that calling for backup was all that was really necessary. When the second officer arrived, the two together easily moved Mr Buckley to the car, and that would have worked without the three Taser shocks — clear demonstration that the use of the Taser was unnecessary.

What the video did for me was show me that the officer was not being an insensitive power-freak. The video did not, in fact, support my bias, but demonstrated quite the opposite. It’s very clear to me that, at least in this case, having the video is crucial to understanding the situation and being able to judge it fairly.

And it’s also still very clear to me that the police must not be allowed to use Tasers in these sorts of situations.


Dr. Momentum said...

Being bored or in a hurry is not a reason to shock someone.

What kind of society are we living in?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Actually this shows us exactly why: a calm police officer thinks Tazing is the easiest and best way to solve things. Imagine what an enraged and/or brutal one thinks?