Earlier this week, a white plainclothes NYPD officer rushed at James Blake, a mixed race former tennis star who was at one time ranked 4th in the world, tackled him and threw him down to the concrete of a city sidewalk in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Four other plain clothes officers then rushed in to hold Blake down and apply handcuffs. The officers then detained Blake for 15 minutes until they realized it was a case of mistaken identity. Blake later said that the officers never displayed their badges, never identified themselves, or told him why he was being detained, all violations of NYPD policy. When it was later learned that the person that the police were after was suspected of fraudulently purchasing cell phones, hardly a violet crime, the use excessive force became even more difficult to defend.
Of course Blake was released and then later received apologies from both the New York City Police Commissioner and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, but what if someone other than a tennis celebrity had been the subject of this case of mistaken identity? What if the five police officers had identified the actual suspect and acted in an identical manner. In all likelihood those situations would have gone unnoticed and would have never been identified by the media. The incident almost certainly would not have become national news.
What occurred on the streets of New York, and incidents far worse, have probably been repeated many thousands of times across the country for many, many years. After all, without solid evidence it has long been extremely difficult to dispute the statements of the police officers involved. When the cops failed to police themselves and covered for each other, who was going to successfully expose them? However, the hot spotlight of media attention is now probing the shadowy world of police brutality, unnecessary force and weapons use and bad apple cops.
Put yourself in the shoes of a cop who has for years bent the rules till they broke, but you always got away with it because there was no credible evidence to the contrary and your partner always vouched for you, and you for him. Maybe there were even situations where your actions may have been truly suspect, but a bit of false evidence planted at the scene diverted attention away from you. However, you have recently awoken in a far different world.
With everyone carrying cell phones, you never know when your next actions will be recorded on video for all the world to see. Surveillance cameras, mounted almost everywhere ostensibly to help you protect the public, are ready not only ready to record the actions of criminals, but yours as well. Witnesses have become bolder and more apt to testify against you. And of course there is always the slim possibility that you might screw up and pick on the wrong person, like James Blake. Worse yet your chief has put out the word he has requested funding to order body cameras for everyone on the force.
The minority of police officers who have been bad actors for years have to be watching one case after another unfold on the national stage where rule breaking cops who were caught acting like they always have are being embarrassed, fired, and even thrown in jail. These bad apples have to be thinking – that could easily be me. Even veterans, whose bad habits are hard to break, must be having second thoughts about how they should be conducting themselves going forward. Younger officers, often more cognizant of the reach of modern technology and changing public perceptions, will be far less likely to develop bad policing habits to begin with. The majority of police officers who protect and serve with honor every day must feel more empowered to not have to defend the bad actors in their midst.
Modern technology is making it easier for our police forces to bring criminals to justice, but that technology and changing perceptions are also giving the public a greater ability to police those sworn to protect and serve them. And that’s a good thing.