The Problem with Police Videos

Police Videos Don't Always Tell the Whole Story

Police Arrest
Officer Arresting Man on Street. Chris Clor/Getty Images

Though the old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, there's growing evidence to suggest that police videos leave a thousand questions. At least, that seems to be the case where police uses of force videos are concerned. In the age of quick and easy uploading, police are more and more often being labeled guilty unless - and often even after - they are proven innocent.

Free to Film

While citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to identify and expose corruption and abuse, there are problems with making snap judgments on police videos that few consider.

Make no mistake: illegal and excessive use of force by police does occur and those officers who misuse or overstep their authority should rightfully face justice. Just as every member of society deserves to have their case vetted through the criminal justice system though, so too should our police officers.

Context Is the Key

A great deal of the public outrage that is expressed after alleged excessive force cases stems from a lack of understanding from the public with regards to how, when and why police are authorized to use force.

When a video of police force surfaces, too often the conversation revolves around an assumption that the police were heavy handed or overstepping their authority. What gets left out of the conversation is the context.

Social and mainstream media are quick to pounce on ostensibly controversial police videos, but those videos - at least the portions that go viral - don't always show the entire picture.

Important information is often lacking, such as what was occurring immediately prior to the beginning of the recording. Camera angles, too, are often woefully lacking, which may help make the case for more body-worn police cameras.

The most important thing that a camera will never catch, though, is the fear an officer may feel during a use of force encounter.

When people fail to comply with police or exhibit aggressive behavior, it is immediately outside of the norm and a sign that something is wrong.

Understanding the Totality of the Circumstances

Obviously, a person's failure to comply is not in and of itself a legitimate reason to use deadly force. When combined with other aggressive acts that may or mat not translate through the lens of a camera,  though, officers are forced to make split-second life-or-death decisions based on the information immediately available to them, not what they can read about the next day.

Uses of Force Look Bad Because They Are Bad

Face it, most videos depicting police force look bad. That's largely because uses of force are bad. This is not to say they are always wrong, but they are always a last resort and never the desirable outcome.

A Decidedly Dangerous Profession

From the first days at the police academy, law enforcement recruits are taught that their job is dangerous and that they may very likely encounter people who, for any number of bad reasons, will be willing to kill them. Why? Because the fact is that there really are people who will try to kill police.

Some do so to avoid prison, some do so in attempts to commit suicide by cop, and some try to kill police officers simply because they hate police officers and government.

This is the world in which most officers live, and it is a world that few, if any, outside of law enforcement can understand.

Training Can't Change Everything

When controversial police videos surface, so too does the call for more police training. Training in diversity, training for dealing with the mentally ill, training in de-escalation tactics, or in whatever the topic du jour is.

In fact, officers often spend half a year or more training in the police academy, not to mention the ongoing continuing education most law enforcement officers attend throughout their career in order to maintain their certifications. Not to say police couldn't use better training, but they receive quite a lot, especially when contrasted with the lack of training the general public receives.

Not Taken Lightly

Police have a tremendous responsibility to uphold the law and to adhere to the highest standard of ethics in all that they do.

Likewise, they should be held accountable for the decisions they make, especially when those decisions involve using force against another or depriving them of their liberty or freedom of movement.

Just the Facts

Officers must also be afforded proper perspective when forced to make decisions most members of the public would want no part of. Before reacting to videos that may look bad at first glance, some care should be given to let all the facts come out. Just as the public demands cooler heads prevail during police encounters, so should they remain cool when passing judgment on their public servants.