F.B.I. Director should praise, not fear, civilians filming the police

F.B.I. Director James Comey is once again claiming that viral videos of police brutality are causing police officers to fail to properly perform their duties. He further claims that these videos are the cause of an increase in the murder rate. He made a similar statement a month or so ago. Now he admits that his view is not supported by data, but he continues to spread this misinformation. This is distressing.

It is hard to understand why Director Comey would think that videos of police officers committing civil rights violations—for example, shooting people in the back for no reason, beating a person who is handcuffed, or arresting and beating a person because she is recording the police—would cause law-abiding police officers to fail to perform their jobs. Many police departments have had cameras in their police cars for years. Sometimes those cameras have revealed police misconduct. Similarly, stationary security cameras have often recorded police abuse. No one claims these cameras have caused good police officers to stop performing their jobs. Modern police departments are now starting to use body cameras; presumably Director Comey would object to this trend as well.

If the viral recordings of police officers violating people’s civil rights causes police officers to be less aggressive, that is appropriate. Police officers should consider whether their actions would be viewed as excessive or abusive by the public. If the videos cause police officers to think more carefully about the level of force that is necessary, that too is appropriate.

Director Comey’s comments are particularly distressing because when the United States investigates police misconduct, typically F.B.I. agents work with the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. These F.B.I. agents should feel that their boss supports enforcing the law when law enforcement officers are the law breakers. Video evidence of police abuse helps F.B.I. agents investigating criminal conduct by police officers.

Police misconduct thrives when it is secret. When members of the public view videos of police officers using excessive force, people are empowered to seek to change the culture of brutality. The head of the F.B.I. should not fear the exposure of police misconduct, but should praise the prevalence of cell phone videos as a tool to help prevent police officers from breaking the law.

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