Yesterday, Brett Darrow met with Saint George, Missouri police chief Scott Uhrig to discuss Sergeant James Kuehnlein's abusive behavior during an encounter with Darrow in a commuter parking lot. According to Darrow, the video from Kuehnlein's cruiser dashboard has mysteriously vanished. This is not a surprise. Police videos that incriminate police officers have a tendency to disappear when allegations of police misconduct surface. I suspect that most videotaped exposure of police misconduct comes from citizen owned equipment, just as it did in the case of Sergeant Kuehnlein and Brett Darrow.
Abusive police officers may lament their increasing vulnerability to exposure by video cameras, but the emergence of cheap, compact video technology is a good thing for police officers and citizens. Videotape is often used to support the prosecution of criminals and the possibility that a citizen has video equipment can only encourage police officers to maintain a professional attitude while on the job.
Videotape can also clear the innocent which is not only right, but part of good police work. While I don't favor placing government cameras everywhere, they are appropriate in police cruisers and I believe they should always be employed during interrogations. While not a perfect solution to misconduct, taping police encounters with the public whenever possible represents a great advance in the effort to protect both the police and the public from wrongful accusations related to interactions between cop and citizen.
Although officers have accepted and even embraced the presence of video equipment in cruisers, detectives still have mixed opinions about videotaping interviews start to finish. Some investigators who oppose the use of cameras claim that videotaping may cause interviewees to clam up. This may be true, but cameras protect interviewees and suspects from the very serious problem of abusive interrogations leading to false confessions.
Here is where I part company with many bloggers who feel the need to qualify their comments on this subject with deferential praise of police officers in general. I have personally and professionally known police officers, detectives and departmental officials at all ranks in the city of Chicago and the suburbs. Abusive behavior by police officers in the field is a serious problem, not because of a few bad apples but because it is widespread and entrenched. Police officers vehemently deny this publicly, but talk about it privately. Prosecutors know this goes on and take the attitude that as long as they are not told about it they can ignore it. I assume that many judges know about it as well because many come from the local prosecutorial ranks.
Besides having personal knowledge of such conduct, serious misconduct during interrogations is chronic and well documented in Chicago where police have a long history of beating citizens (including innocent citizens), coercing false confessions and using torture as late as the 1980s. Police routinely go off on citizens who assert their rights and they routinely arrest citizens on false charges. Sergeant Kuenhlein's verbally abusive, illegal threatening behavior in the Brett Darrow videotape was not atypical. It is commonplace.
Although I don't know Sergeant Kuehnlein's age, I've been told that the problem in the field lies mostly with younger male officers. That problem has been exacerbated in recent years as many younger officers have gotten heavily into the aggression-stoking weightlifters subculture. What no officer has admitted to me but what I strongly suspect based on appearances is that the problem has been further compounded by pockets of steroid abuse among younger cops who hit the weights. I have certainly known police officers who admitted to using testosterone pro-hormones prior to the legal ban on these substances early in 2006.
One police officer I knew (outside of a therapeutic context) who used these substances was a big guy who benched close to 400 lbs. He was always a very pleasant and even-keeled fellow around me. He had even been quite critical of fellow officers who mistreat the public saying that he looked at citizens and would think to himself "she could be my mother or he could be my brother." I was surprised one day when he told me about grabbing the arm of a kid of about 13 for giving him lip and dragging the kid down the street alongside his squad car. The panicked boy screamed as he tried to keep up with the car, his arm clamped in the iron grip of Officer Terminator.
Okay, some people might do this to a younger brother, but that is not what I was thinking this police officer meant when he said that he tried to think about citizens as family members. His dangerous and illegal stunt may or may not have diminished the possibility of this kid giving lip to police officers in the future, but I doubt it will have the slightest positive effect on any propensity this kid may have to engage in criminal conduct. It might, however, make him less likely to "snitch" to police during an investigation of a serious crime. I should add that I doubt my "good cop" acquaintance of several years would still be a police officer if this stunt had been caught on tape.
As I said in my original post on the Kuehnlein incident, human beings are not good with power. Among those who have power there is a tendency to abuse it, while the defensive tendency to identify with the aggressor is one significant factor behind excessive public tolerance of police misconduct. Deferential glorification of aggressors provides a sense of safety from aggression, but it also emboldens the aggressor. But, videotapes can't identify with the aggressor. That's why videotapes like Brett Darrow's can be helpful to promoting better police work while also guarding the rights of citizens.
Update: In an interview with radio station KMOX Saint George Police Chief Scott Uhrig suggested that driver Brett Darrow baited Sergeant Kuehnlein:
Just the normal person doesn't respond to questions... you know... that he [Darrow] did and with that I find that rather strange.
Chief Uhrig is right. "The normal person" doesn't respond this way to a police officer. Normal persons are usually afraid to assert their legal right to privacy while alone in an empty parking lot with a police officer who is challenging that right. That's why Kuehnlein blew up. Darrow did not show the fearful deference to which Sergeant Kuehnlein is accustomed when he demands that a citizen forfeit his legal rights upon Kuehnlein's demand that he do so. As Chief Uhrig clearly knows, most normal persons are afraid of his officers in these situations.
I don't care if Keuhnlein was baited or set up. Police officers frequently behave this way when citizens refuse to cede their legal rights. More officers should be set up until such behavior is no longer an acceptable part of police culture.
Uhrig also acknowledged that the dashcam tape is missing and says that Kuehnlein told him the dashcam "had a glitch" on the night of the incident. Uhrig says he has checked the dashcam and it is apparently glitchless now.