John Klar: Should Americans have to pay to access police body cam footage?

By John Klar

Vermont continues to struggle with legal questions surrounding the use of police body cameras. The Vermont Supreme Court hears arguments April 17 to determine whether its citizens must pay money to access police video footage. In Doyle v. Burlington Police Department, the police required a $220.50 payment for processing costs for the redaction of minors’ faces before it would release a body camera video to the plaintiff.

The police went to great lengths to prevent Doyle from obtaining this video footage. Yet this same police department recently released similarly redacted video to exonerate Secret Service agents accused of roughing up a black 16-year-old who posted a laughable video alleging that their questioning of him was racially motivated. The incident occurred on March 25; the redacted video was released on April 2.

Back in 2017, this department released a video that exonerated an officer after a young woman alleged on Facebook that she had been sexually assaulted. The embarrassing video of a June 22 incident, released within about a month, redacted juveniles’ faces and not only exonerated the officers, but exposed the young woman as a brat and a liar.

Yet another recent Vermont case involves a police video as evidence of whether an officer properly respected constitutional safeguards in a drug seizure during a motor vehicle search.

In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a powerful giant with a hundred eyes who watched over lo, the heifer-nymph (a nymph in the guise of a heifer). It was said that a few of Argus’s multitude of eyes would sleep at a time, allowing the others to be ever vigilant, in all directions.

This idea of a creature that can see in all directions at all times has been made real by modern technology.  In the 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term “Panopticon” (borrowing from that Greek tale) to describe his “modern” design of an institutional penitentiary in which one or a very few guards were stationed so as to look over hundreds of prison cells from a hidden vantage. Inmates who couldn’t know when they were being watched must act as if they were being watched at all times. This “efficient” system leads people to conform their own behavior, with a minimum of oversight. George Orwell amplified this idea into a dystopian warning, in his iconic 1984.

This concept is employed not just in prisons, but in hospitals, schoolrooms, public buildings, and shopping malls. Jeremy Bentham would have loved the incredible abilities of modern video surveillance!  Would-be shoplifters cannot know whether there is a camera in use, or whether someone is watching them if there is — so they are constantly fearing those eyes of Argus, guarding the divine heifer-nymph (shelves of consumer goods). Motorists in urban areas around the globe must consider the Panopticon of modern techno-scrutiny when they ponder running that red light.

Then there are police officer body cams, which pose unique moral questions for our society. The idea of government surveillance of citizens was of great importance to the founders of America, which is why we continue to embrace numerous constitutional protections of privacy. Yet body cams flip this concept on its head because the use of body cams may be most powerful where they serve as citizen surveillance of government.

Every police officer is aware that when he interacts with the public, he represents the reputation of his fellow officers and that misconduct could tarnish that reputation or his personal career.  These interactions must never be hidden. The Panopticon may be well employed at the Department of Motor Vehicles, in prisons or at traffic lights, or in private retail establishments and home protection surveillance. But it is most vitally employed when those one hundred sleepless eyes are kept steadily trained on government and the behavior of its representatives, most especially the police.

Vermont’s experiences show the value and importance of body cam footage, yet the state’s police recently attempted to divert $560,000 that the Vermont Legislature had slotted for body cameras — to spend instead on assault weapons!

Will the Department of Homeland Security be free to randomly spy on Americans with sophisticated drones (as it does), yet we cannot access records of our interactions with government? Are federal helicopters to fly over our homes and peer into our yards, forests, and pastures (they do), while citizens are prohibited from protecting themselves by video-recording an encounter with police on their cell phones? Is the NSA to scrutinize and record Americans’ internet history, phone logs, and GPS data (it has and does), while citizens are denied access to video footage chronicling the conduct of public servants?

It appears that Vermont’s police quickly release video footage from body cams when it exonerates officers — as well they should. But since the Panopticon now works both ways, so too should the availability of tools that ensure transparency, especially in law enforcement. Given recent high-profile examples of videos released (at public expense) that included redactions of minors’ faces, the Vermont Supreme Court will likely agree. If not, the ACLU may well shepherd the case up to the federal stage.

The Burlington City Police clearly dragged their feet in the Doyle case, and our State Police seek to fund guns instead of body cameras. This reveals the power and importance of such technology to ensure accountability. Law enforcement officers must always behave as if watched, to always follow the rules, like prisoners, shoplifters, and hospital patients.

It would be incongruous for the Vermont Supreme Court to rule that the police may unilaterally decide to release redacted videos to the press, but citizens must pay to gain access to that same evidence. If Vermont allows government to hold the upper hand in surveillance, it will have abandoned its guard over that divine heifer of our freedoms and embraced the fate of Argus, whose many eyes were lulled to sleep by the magic charms of Hermes, who then struck Argus’s head with a stone.

Greek legend relates that Argus’s eyes were preserved forever in the tail feathers of the peacock. Not just Vermonters, but all Americans should keep their eyes peeled, wary of the would-be criminals of government that would pluck our liberties to fluff their bureaucratic plumage.

John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. This commentary originally appeared at American Thinker.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kevin.B

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