On cameras

     Have you ever watched an episode of the television series "To Catch A Predator?" Even if you say you haven't, I'm betting you have. I know I've watched it on occasion.

     Two things strike me about this show: There are a lot of really stupid sexual predators (that's a good thing) and the takedowns almost always look like overkill (and that's not such a good thing).

     What I mean by overkill is that half-a-dozen officers will jump on the offender and very forcefully take him down.

     Now, I know as well as the next cop that what is perceived to be happening and what actually is happening are often two different things. Police like to err on the side of caution. To conduct business any other way would be dangerous to both the officers and bystanders.

     I remember years ago on a foot patrol in a downtown red light district when one of our officers came across a young man who clearly needed a mental health evaluation. The guy didn't stand more than 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 125 pounds soaking wet. But trying to get him to go down and keep him down was unbelievably hard.

     The officer called for help and soon there was a cop on each leg, one on each side, another at his head, one more trying to put him in restraints and a couple to watch our backs, in case we needed them.

     To the casual observer it would have looked like an excessive use of force, but it literally took everything we had to get this guy under control.

     Can you imagine how this story would have played out on the evening news? Eight, nine people trying to bring this one fellow down? A guy who was no larger than a high school freshman — a female high school freshman at that.

     Because I'm part dinosaur, there were no camera phones back then, so we didn't have to make it pretty for the public. We did our jobs and no matter how unlikely it sounds, it took that many people to subdue this guy safely, without anyone, including the guy we sent off for psychiatric help, getting hurt.

     Right now many criminal justice agencies are coming under intense public scrutiny because their activities are being recorded and appearing on the evening news, adding to the damning of police and the profession everywhere.

     Courts have ruled that unless the photographer or the photograph itself interferes with the investigation or the officers' abilities to do their jobs, police cannot lawfully stop them or confiscate the photos or film. To keep crime scenes uncontaminated and protect the dignity of victims, they often can be cordoned off in such a way as to prevent snooping, but arrests caught on tape can often reflect what — to the average citizen — appears to be an overreaction or too much force. And that leads to an even more pronounced mistrust of police.

     At this time, several jurisdictions, including the Seattle and Miami police, are wrestling with very public incidents involving photographs or video taken by civilians or journalists of incidents involving police. Sometimes the police win these, sometimes they lose, but in every case, it is clear that departments spend a lot of time, effort and money defending against these actions.

     The best defense is really a good offense. Rather than wait for an officer to confiscate a camera phone and end up with both a public relations disaster and possible court case, get smart: Create a legally bulletproof policy right this minute. Make certain that your officers understand it and can implement it.

     In this day and age where everyone is armed with a means to record how your personnel conduct themselves, it only makes sense to arm them with knowledge. It's a whole lot better than sitting at the defendant's table down the road.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore@ec.rr.com.

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