Body and Taser cameras a nice step, but not the answer

Category 24 – Original Writing – Editorial
1st Place

– by Patrick Taylor –
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by New York Police Department officers on the street. While the narrative goes that he was selling loosey cigarettes, he had no contraband on him at the time of his death.

In fact, he had just broken up a fight when officers approached him and asked him if he was selling loosies, as he had a history of doing so. He claimed he wasn’t, was pulled to the ground by officers and put in a chokehold while he eeked out the words, “I can’t breathe” before dying on the Staten Island sidewalk.

His killers won’t be facing a trial.

Officers not facing trial for their actions happens extremely frequently. Regardless of what your beliefs are about the whole Mike Brown/Darren Wilson incident in Ferguson, this was an issue that seemed very clear cut.

When you combine the fact that he had no contraband on him with the fact that the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, you already have a clear enough case to at least get this thing past a grand jury and to trial. When you consider that chokeholds are a tactic that is banned by the NYPD (but executed – no pun intended – flawlessly by NYPD officers), you have even more evidence of impropriety. And when video exists that shows just how awful this entire situation was, you have enough for a clear-cut conviction, right?

As we all know, that isn’t the truth.

Somehow, some way, Eric Garner’s killers walked free while his family mourns his death and struggles to come to terms with that fact.

Even with video evidence, a grand jury still wouldn’t indict. So with that said, what good will body cameras and Taser cameras actually do?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz recently announced that he has given Police Chief Jim Johnson the task of studying the use of body cameras. After the 90 day study, the county council will vote on whether or not officers will have to wear cameras, and funding will be put aside for that endeavor for the following fiscal year.

The county is also going to spend just over $100,000 to add cameras to the Tasers used by police, which will begin recording as soon as they are turned on.

All of this sounds nice, and I do have to applaud both Kamenetz and Johnson for their willingness to do so in the name of transparency.

After all, Baltimore County officers do have a little bit of history with brutality. It’s not nearly on the level of Ferguson police (who once beat a man, arrested him and charged him with vandalism for bleeding on their uniforms – seriously), but it’s there.

We had the Middle River man who was Tasered 10 times back in 2007. The officers were deemed not to have done anything inappropriate and walked.

Earlier this year in Towson, Sergio Gutierrez, a 21-year-old who was filming officers breaking up a fight, was arrested and told that his rights didn’t matter. In the video he took, the officer straight up told him he had no rights. The officer’s patrol duties were later revoked.

And that’s about where the extent of any punishment ends. In these situations, officers either walk, get administrative leave or suspended with pay.

Even with video evidence, punishment is still lacking.

So while I applaud Kamenetz and Johnson for taking a serious look at body cameras, how about they take a serious look at making sure that the officers that are hired aren’t psycho/sociopaths? How about they make sure that the officers hired understand that rights are inalienable? How about they make sure that the officers hired don’t look at themselves as judge, jury and executioner?

So before I begin with how I would go about overhauling the entire system, let’s stick with cameras for a second.

Body cameras are necessary. While video evidence didn’t lead to indictment in Eric Garner’s case, video evidence in the Tamir Rice case shows exactly why body cameras are needed.

Rice was shot by officers after a 911 caller stated that a boy in a park across the street had what looked like a toy gun. The caller states that Rice was most likely a little kid with a toy gun. In the video, you see officers pull up to the location, and within two seconds Rice is on the ground dead.

Not only did the officers break all kinds of protocol, they then lied about it in the incident report. The whole incident report was fabricated, and the only reason why Rice’s family may still get their justice is because a video camera was up across the street that captured the senseless murder.

Not only was the boy shot, but it took four minutes for any medical attention to be given and that’s only because an FBI agent happened to be walking by and saw the dead boy. Then Rice’s sister was cuffed and put in a squad car when she arrived and tried rushing to her brother’s side.

Great police work all around.

So cameras are necessary because, after all, officers are people and people sometimes lie, especially when they screw the proverbial pooch.

So body cameras are a good thing. Good work, Kamenetz and Johnson.

However, more changes need to be made. The fact that we don’t have a citizen review board in the county is appalling to me. As I stated above, officers are human and officers lie. We’re at a point where we simply can’t trust officers solely based off of their words and what’s in written reports.

I’m calling on Kamenetz and Johnson to set up a citizen review board with representation from each precinct. They would be in charge of overseeing police-involved shootings and other discrepancies that may pop up.

Secondly, I’m calling for Kamenetz and Johnson to take a look at the psychiatric evaluation used to determine if someone is ready to even be an officer. Too often we have officers who use lines similar to the one used against Gutierrez – “You have no rights.” The fact that someone who thinks that could possibly end up on the police force is, quite frankly, an abomination.

Next, I’m calling on Kamenetz to bring in a prosecutor from a different jurisdiction when officers are facing punishment, because this is where a lot of the big issues appear.

Far too often, prosecutors from the same jurisdiction as the officers they’re trying to indict have to try to prove that said officers have committed a crime. Only there’s a big issue at hand, and that’s the fact that the prosecutor is reliant on those same exact officers in order to make cases.

How can we expect prosecutors to really do all they can when their job relies on those they’re trying?

It’s absolute madness, and the simplest solution is to bring in a special prosecutor to oversee those cases.

If there was a grand jury for a police-involved shooting in Baltimore County, I’d be very apprehensive seeing Scott Schellenberger as the prosecutor.

I’m not here to say that all officers are bad. Far from it, actually. I’ve had plenty of encounters where officers have been cordial and respectful. I’ve also had plenty of encounters where I’ve been pulled out of my car because  my long hair and beard make me a target. Captain Hlavach and Captain Baylog, as well as pretty much all of the officers in the Essex and White Marsh precincts, have been nothing but kind and straightforward.

What I am here to say is that massive change is needed. It won’t be easy and it could take a while, but it’s necessary. After all, an officer’s purpose isn’t to “serve and protect” as it says on their cars; it’s to enforce the law. We just need to make sure that the law is enforced against them as well.