Arizona police car rams man: Video camera revolution gains speed

A police cruiser in Arizona rams a suspect. A reserve deputy in Oklahoma says he confused his stun gun and handgun, resulting in a death. Videos in both cases raise questions about use of force.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in the city. The camera is attached to a battery pack and controls on the officer's uniform.

Crime and law enforcement in the United States have never been as well documented as they are today.

Smart phones. Body cams. Dash cams. Increasingly ubiquitous closed-circuit television setups, public and private. All have given the public an up-close, real-time, and sometimes graphic picture of crime and police actions in response.

The cases involving police killing of unarmed black suspects, with video recorded by private citizens (or by police themselves using their devices), raise questions about the use of force.

In recent days, that has included a volunteer sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Okla., charged with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a suspect after the deputy confused his stun gun and handgun, which was recorded by another officer with a video camera mounted on his sunglasses. In another incident, police in Marana, Ariz., this week released a dashboard video taken in February showing a police cruiser ramming into a man carrying a loaded rifle allegedly stolen from a Wal-Mart and used in the robbery of a convenience store.

The suspect was injured, treated at a hospital, and then released to police custody two days later.

"Everything in the video seems to point towards an obvious excessive use of force. It is miraculous that my client isn't dead," attorney Michelle Cohen-Metzger told CNN.

That’s not how police see the incident, according to CNN.

"If we're going to choose between maybe we'll let him go a little bit farther and see what happens, or we're going to take him out now and eliminate any opportunity he has to hurt somebody, you're going to err on the side of, in favor of the innocent people," Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema said. "This officer made a split-second decision, and in retrospect, when all the dust clears, I think we look at this and say, yeah, there's things we can learn from this, but the entire community is safe, all the officers are safe, and even the suspect in this case is safe."

The use of police cameras, worn by officers or mounted on dashboards, has accelerated with such incidents as last year’s fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., which led to violent protests and a shake-up in the community’s civilian and police leadership, as well as the issuing of body cams to officers in Ferguson.

More than 1,000 police departments around the country use similar cameras, reports NBC News. "Documentation, accountability, transparency is part of what we do now, and it should be," Celina, Texas, Police Chief Mark Metdker told NBC.

As police departments deal with use-of-force and privacy issues related to such cameras, police in Seattle are putting blurry, silent versions of the videos on YouTube, giving the curious a chance to see what they involve while also protecting the privacy of those depicted.

“We are still in the early stages of documenting empirically the potential benefits and costs (including privacy, emotional, and financial costs) associated with the use of body cams by police,” Frederic Reamer, professor in the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College in Providence, told the Monitor in March.

Meanwhile, civilian use of smart phones and other digital devices to record police actions – generally legal as long as the camera operator is not interfering with law enforcement – remains a contentious issue.

Legislative proposals in California and Colorado would protect citizens who film police officers in public from harassment or confiscation of their devices by police without a warrant. 

In Texas last week, a state lawmaker withdrew his proposal that would have made it illegal to film police activity within a 25-foot radius. Under the bill, which contained an exception for the news media, those carrying handguns would have been kept from photographing or recording police within 100 feet.

“We thought when we wrote our bill that we were making it safe not only for the police officers by that buffer zone, but also for those individuals that are seeking to keep law enforcement accountable to give them a safe zone to film,” GOP state Rep. Jason Villalba told The Dallas Morning News.

But opposition to the bill was swift and came from “far-left civil libertarians to our far-right people who believe that we were somehow limiting First Amendment rights,” Representative Villalba said.

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