2 sides of the equation: Police UOF in the digital video age

The advent of cell phone camera technology has opened a portal into our profession that can be very positive and extremely negative

By John B. Edwards
Police1 Special Contributor

Life in the 21st century has been transformed through rapid and ongoing cultural, political, and technological change. As a result, how we communicate with each other has become very complex due to the volume of information, how it is shared, and perspectives and assumptions forged from interpretation of that information and its meaning.

Financial motivations from media ratings and advertising revenues drive the advancement of certain types of information over others because of voyeuristic interest and the attractiveness of controversy. Social media creates a real time “perfect storm” of information that targets people of like interest and views and has no filter for rumors, lies, or inaccuracy.

Two Sides of the Equation
The same phenomenon has also provided a credible view into places that were once closed to public scrutiny or opinion. The advent of cell phone camera technology has opened a portal into our profession that can be very positive and extremely negative.

On the positive side, these cameras have affirmed operational oversight and illumination of problem officers who have no place in law enforcement. Never before in our profession has leadership become so important to ensure professional conduct, standards, accountability, and transparency while dealing with and terminating those whose behavior is contrary to the ethics and preservation of privacy, civil rights and civil protections. Police managers have become keenly aware of the value to promote the concepts of rightful policing while holding everyone accountable to serving the public in a professional and fair manner.

On the negative side, the video perspective is just one perspective. People make different assumptions and draw different conclusions based upon their limited view looking through their single lens of judgement. These evaluations can have adverse consequences because of incomplete, biased, or distorted facts and circumstances.

There is also a tendency to hold an officer to the same evaluation standard as an engineer, architect, or building contractor when making decisions and conducting their business. These professions do have certain responsibilities and specific duties just like policing. However these professions, and many others, have what police often do not — the luxury of time and a static set of variables. It is unrealistic to compare policing environments, which are often time-crucial events and involve ever-changing dynamic variables.

Officers must make the best objectively reasonable decisions they can make, based on the information known to them at the time of action, even if that action changes every second. This concept is basic to the Supreme Court of the United States’ guidance and mandate that the police are not required to be right, just objectively reasonable through the perspective of a “reasonable officer.”

Unfortunately, this concept is difficult for a lay person to understand without the appropriate background and perspective. Moreover, despite journalistic training, resources, and law enforcement available for questions and clarification, the media rarely highlights or describes this lawful standard in a way that the general audience can understand.

Police use of force, whether right or wrong, is never pretty. It is unpleasant for anyone to watch. As humans, we all feel first before we think. As a result, passions, beliefs and unintentional and inadvertent ignorance can distort the structural view our law requires in viewing a use of force case.

Like any other occupation, law enforcement employs humans, and humans can make mistakes or become deviant to their responsibilities and the law. Identification of these mistakes leads to policy or training opportunities to adapt to the challenges. Proper procedures can ensure that mistakes can become learning points and be contained where they are not repeated.           

Four Major Issues
The media-forged paradigm is exacerbated by four other issues. First and foremost, many do not understand the importance of suspect compliance and how it is central to most every use of force case.

Second, all people construct reality based upon their knowledge, experiences, and beliefs, and sometimes objectivity is lost to subjective feelings.

Third, judgmental bias occurs when it is assumed that the characteristics of police occurrences of force can be estimated from a small number of observations or data points that fail to evaluate the larger picture from the thousands and thousands of police encounters every day.

Finally, there are conflicting dynamics that take place every time an incident occurs that is captured by video. There is an outcry and demand for public release and immediate view of the footage, but simultaneously there is a responsibility to mitigate the privacy concerns of sensitive groups and individuals, and ensure the integrity of the investigation for later judicial proceedings. This polarizing tension is amplified by a desire for the media to constantly “feed the machine,” and the lack of patience and trust the community has in a system that has proven itself throughout the years to be not only just, but reliable.

As a profession, we also inherit a responsibility to be better trained and prepared in light of today’s — and yesterday’s — issues. Whether we agree or not, perception trumps reality and the perception today from people of color is indicative of a huge distrust of law enforcement. Thus, we have a duty to repair that break in trust and find ways to ensure others’ concerns are addressed as we uphold the premise of equality and due process for all.

The rule of objectivity and due process is at a premium for everyone in a world where we fall prisoner to our subjective beliefs over rational thoughts which often cloud our perspectives before we evaluate the facts and circumstances specific to each case.

The bottom line is all lives matter to our profession and we have a rich history of being killed in the line of duty protecting people we either do not know or have nothing in common with us other than our humanity.

About the Author
John B. Edwards is the author of “Burden of Command” a primer on police leadership and management. John retired after 30 years of service with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and four years as the Chief Deputy Sheriff in Evans County Ga. He currently serves as a board member for the Peace Officers Association of Georgia and a law enforcement consultant for JB Edwards and Associates.

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