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To See or Not to See

By By Ernie Stephens | May 1, 2015



Okay, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time we had THE talk. What do you do when you see something from the air that’s so highly controversial, you wish you hadn’t seen it? What do you do when your camera system catches behavior that will certainly spell trouble for your colleagues, whether they deserve it or not?

We’ve all seen the videos. It doesn’t matter whether they were shot by an in-cruiser dash cam, a security camera outside of a business or a citizen standing on the sidelines. If they show a law enforcement officer going hands-on or shooting someone, they are going to be the top story on every news broadcast.

In fact, a video showing the fatal shooting of suspect in Tulsa, Okla. hit the news just hours before I began writing this. So we can now add that to the footage from Ferguson, Mo.; New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; San Bernardino County, Calif., and North Charleston, S.C. Those of you who are old enough can even write in 1991’s Rodney King incident in Los Angeles if you wish.

For the record, I’m lumping those incidents together for no other reason than that they were all caught on video and generated a whole lot of anti-police sentiment, justified or not. But I have been in law enforcement long enough to know that what looks really bad on video can sometimes be perfectly legal and proper. Like it or not, the truth is that police work – even when done 100 percent correctly – can be a horrible thing to watch. It can look like pure chaos to the untrained or emotionally-blinded eye.

There are often times when a law enforcement flight crew is going to bear witness to fellow officers going hands-on with citizens. It may be a one-on-one thing or a crowd-control situation. The encounter may result in some rolling around on the ground, the use of deadly force or something in between. And there you’ll be, with a birds-eye view of the entire affair. You may even have a camera system on board that’s recording the events as they unfold—and sending those images live to a ground location via microwave.

My partner and I arrived above a high-speed chase once and were recording it through our video camera. Experience has shown me that it isn’t uncommon for people’s adrenaline to be pumping during one of these things, so I suggested that my tactical flight officer shut the recorder off after the suspect’s vehicle had reached its final resting place (and before the officers went hands-on).

Sure enough, a formal complaint was filed by the suspect’s attorney about the manner in which his client had been “encouraged to behave” prior to being handcuffed. As expected, we got a call from a lieutenant from Internal Affairs a day or two later asking for a copy of the video we had shot, complete with its abrupt end.

Even though it was over a dozen years ago, I still remember questioning my decision to turn off the camera during the arrest phase of that incident. We didn’t have dash cameras on my department yet, but I had heard how the ones used by other agencies cleared officers of allegations of wrongdoing more times than they had slammed them. I wondered if our video might have exonerated an innocent cop from a false allegation. But I also thought about the whole “justice for all” thing, and that I should always conduct business with that in mind. By dawn, I was even angry at the couple of officers who had gotten overzealous and put me the position to have to grapple with the issue at all.

Now, I say, “Record it all.” I say this for several reasons. First, the recording might help clear an officer wrongly accused of something just because he happened to be there. Second, the recording will help identify the otherwise professional, well-meaning cop who was simply having a bad day, lost his temper and needs some counseling instead of jail time. Third, the recording could help rid the profession of bad officers who truly need to be in a different line of work.

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