Given the viral nature of the recent release of footage from a police cruiser dash camera, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the case of Ersula Ore, a professor at Arizona State University whose misfortune on the night of the 20th of May was to jaywalk across a street in the university district in front of a pair of cops. (Adding the phrase “while black” to the end of the prior sentence may be relevant.) If you’re not, an article at HuffPo offers a good primer.
Before I get to my point, let it suffice to say I put the blame for both the initial development and the escalation of the incident squarely on the shoulders of the police officers involved. In an attempt to cite someone for a violation of a public safety ordinance they made the immediate environment less safe by parking in the middle of the road.
“There were three of them, three police cars left askew across the road in a way that transcended mere parking. It sent out a massive signal to the world saying that the law was here now taking charge of things, and that anyone who just had normal, good and cheerful business to conduct in Lupton Road could just fuck off.”
― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
They then failed to move the encounter outside their vehicle to a safer area like a sidewalk. They failed to defuse the situation verbally by lowering the pitch of the encounter, instead confronting verbal force with more verbal force, escalating to the point where physical violence became the “solution” sought by the primary officer. I fail to grasp how it could be rationalized that a jaywalking violation could reasonably escalate to a takedown attempt preceded by a threat to slam someone into a vehicle. (The statement by ASU on the incident tries to rationalize it, and not so admirably.)
But that constitutes what I think are the obvious concerns. I’m more troubled, probably due to the seeming novelty of the idea, by the fact that this was all caught on camera in the first place.
Cameras, typically mounted on police cruiser dashboards but also found attached to rifles, helmets and other tools of the law enforcement trade, are becoming, dare I say, ubiquitous. Conventional wisdom suggests the presence of cameras is a good thing as police, knowing they’re being taped, are presumed likely to act with greater restraint than they might if they could engage in malfeasance absent the burden of a prying electric eye. This wisdom has proven repeatedly to be without foundation, as cameras operating as part of police policy capture footage ranging from that taken of the encounter described above to an Albuquerque policeman with a camera mounted on his rifle shooting a homeless man.
Earlier I noted, “They then failed to move the encounter outside their vehicle to a safer area like a sidewalk.” Why did the officers remain in front of their cruiser? Aside from the safety issue, another means of verbally defusing the situation might’ve been to offer to escort Ore to the sidewalk. There’s no indication I’m aware of that any such suggestion was made. What appears to be the case is that every effort was made to keep the encounter in front of the camera, up to and including physically restraining Ore in a position where she and the officer pressing the engagement would remain in view.
Does the ASU police department have a policy concerning use of video cameras by police, and does that policy require an encounter to remain in view of a camera whenever possible? If that question can be answered affirmatively, is it then possible such a policy could have contributed to the escalation of this incident, given an imperative to keep the activity in frame? Confining the encounter to a specific area, even one without obvious physical barriers, may have contributed to the anxiety felt by Ore during the encounter and expressed in her resistance to the officers’ ministrations
If, having gotten this far, you’re questioning the efficacy of cameras operated by the police, consider this: The original reality show was Cops. In a move worthy of the fiction of Aldous Huxley, police work became entertainment. For some, (or perhaps too many) a video of a college professor being roughed up by a couple of bad boys is no more than an addendum to any given episode of a show devoted to exploitation disguised as hero worship.
I’ll leave you with another take on Ersula Ore’s encounter with Tempe’s Finest…
Addendum, 21 July 2014: Aside from the “being a cop” part, apparently being an Eagle Scout and engaging in volunteer work operates as justification for assaulting a woman over jaywalking.
Addendum, 24 July 2014: A tangentially related article on the Power of Vulnerability.