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CAN CAMERAS PREVENT THE POLICE FROM HARASSING POOR PEOPLE?

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Last year, Alex Saleh, a convenience store owner in Miami Gardens, Florida, installed 15 security cameras in and around his shop—but not to protect his business, which is in a rough neighborhood of a rough city, against shoplifting or any other crime. The 36-year-old put in the cameras because his employees and customers were getting bothered so often by the police. Thanks to Saleh, countless incidents of the cops harassing and arresting the neighborhood’s mostly poor, mostly black residents were caught on tape. A Miami Herald story about the cops’ habitual and casual mistreatment of Miami Gardens residents has gone viral (it has 21,000 Facebook likes at the moment), mostly because of the incontrovertible evidence of the cameras and the outrageous details of the harassment.

One of Saleh’s employees, a 28-year-old named Earl Sampson, has been stopped by police 258 times in four years and searched 100 times. He’s been arrested 62 times for just “trespassing,” and most of those incidents happened at the convenience store itself. One arrest, in June 2012, happened while Sampson was stocking shelves. Exactly how many scores of trespassing arrests does it take for Miami Gardens police to remember where someone works?

According to the Herald piece, Saleh initially consented to participate in a “zero-tolerance” program, which meant cops could come into his business and stop or arrest anyone who was loitering or trespassing. But the shopkeeper claims he tried to get out of the program after becoming concerned about how aggressive the police were being, and the cops responded by continuing to harass his customers and workers. Saleh also says that when he first tried to bring evidence of this behavior to internal affairs, several officers came into his store and stood silent for several minutes in what seemed to him to be an attempt at intimidation.

Cameras are the best possible defense against police misconduct, as well as a way for officers to protect themselves against false allegations. It’s one reason—pretty much the only reason, actually—to appluad the fact that our society is so crowded with monitoring devices. Britain has around one CCTV camera for every 14 residents, while New York City has 2,500 cameras in lower Manhattan alone. The ACLU is not a fan of this proliferation of lenses and claims they don’t prevent crime. Others maintain cameras are effective, pointing to their use in apprehending some London train bombers in 2005 and referencing the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, when private security cameras and citizen smartphone footage were utilized along with law enforcement recordings. In fact, a department store’s surveillance footage was where the FBI found its first usable footage of the Tsarnaev brothers.

Obviously, there are privacy concerns when there are so many cameras, especially cameras controlled by large corporations or governments that store data in massive quantities. But a business owner or homeowner choosing to install a surveillance system—especially, as in Saleh’s case, in order to protect himself against the government—seems less menacing.

As with drones, 3D printers, the internet, and many other new technologies, cameras can aid both the authorities and those who are suffering under the boot of authority. Cops can use surveillance to monitor us, but we can use cameras to gaze right back. Saleh has announced he’s going to sue the city, and since then Sampson hasn’t been arrested and the police presence around his store has been much lighter.

Now on to the rest of this week’s bad cops:

– Speaking of dubious trespassing charges, a business owner in Dekalb County, Georgia, says that more than a year ago he was arrested for loitering and carrying a legal concealed firearm on his own property. Eric Lee, who owns a furniture store, had been targeted by thieves numerous times, so he purchased a gun. One night, Lee went outside to investigate some odd noises on his property, and while he was looking around the cops rolled in and confronted him, cuffing him once he admitted he had a gun. Lee was jailed for loitering, his gun was taken away, and his truck was towed—from his own property. In their report, officers claimed Lee was drunk, while Lee says the alcohol smell was coming from nearby homeless people who were arrested along with him and who were the reason cops were initially called by a neighbor. Though a judge dismissed all charges and even apologized to him, Lee hasn’t had his weapon returned, and this month he filed a federal lawsuit. He doesn’t want money, he just wants the police to apologize for what he sees as a violation of his constitutional rights, pay the cost of his towing bill, and return his firearm.

– On Friday, a San Antonio, Texas, cop was arrested for allegedly raping a 19-year-old after he handcuffed the woman and claimed her car had been reported stolen. Officer Jackie Len Neal then ignored the woman’s documents proving she owned the car, then patted her down even though she requested a female officer. He then put her in the backseat of his cruiser and, she says, raped her. Neal’s recording equipment was malfunctioning during this time (which he would have been aware of), but GPS tracking confirmed the woman’s story that the police car was stopped for 18 minutes on a particular street. Neal has a spotty history that includes a record of (dropped) sexual assault allegations and a suspension for dating an 18-year-old who was interested in joining the police force. He’s currently free is free on bond and will continue to be paid until, and if, he is indicted.

– As part of a larger controversy over whether police mistreat minorities and others, a Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, police officer was removed from duty after accusations surfaced that he made a mentally disabled black man “dance like a chimp” and then filmed it and posted the video on social networking sites. The officer’s punishment will be decided on next week.

– Police in San Francisco are accused of beating up a cyclist for riding on the sidewalk on November 15 then attacking passersby who tried to help the victim—who, unsurprisingly, was a young black man. The two cops were undercover when they approached 20-year-old D’Paris Williams. According to a friend of the victim, the officers grabbed Williams and beat him as he tried to enter the housing development where he lived. The cops also allegedly attacked three individuals who tried to come to Williams’s aid, at least one of whom was injured. It’s worth asking whether they bystanders knew the identity of the men beating up their neighbor, since it’s not clear whether the cops identified themselves as officers before the brawl began. Williams, who was captured on video screaming in pain and having trouble walking, was sent to the hospital. The San Francisco Police Department claims Williams failed to comply and that the bystanders who intervened were aggressive towards officers. Residents of the housing development are planning a protest against police brutality.

– Controversial incidents like these are reason to embrace a federally-funded pilot program for SFPD officer-mounted cameras. Starting next month, about 50 plainclothes cops will began wearing them on duty. Officers can’t delete footage or mess with it, but they are still the ones who choose to turn them on during a confrontation. The Bay Area transit police took part in asimilar initiative in 2011 after a couple of high-profile shootings of civilians by cops, and San Jose and Oakland police have instituted pilot programs as well. The cost of putting a camera on every cop seems prohibitive, especially when you’re looking at larger urban police forces, but if they can afford military technology with help from generous federal grants, they can figure out a way to equip cops with devices that will help resolve disputes between communities and the police.

– This week, our Good Cop of the Week Award goes to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police sergeant Bobby Whitley, who received his department’s medal of valor this week for a September incident during which he removed a small improvised explosive device from the neck of an unconscious man. The apparently suicidal man was airlifted to the hospital aftering apparently injuring himself, where surgeons discovered the object then called the bomb squad instead of operating. Whitley, who wasn’t wearing any kind of protection, arrived and took 15 minutes to safely remove the object. The unidentified man doesn’t face any charges, which is also good news. Hopefully he recovered and then got some help—and hopefully Whitney continues to be a badass in his other endeavors.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

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