Body Cams in Virginia

Some cops in Virginia just made life harder for a huge number of other cops … by doing the right thing. WTVR has an account up of a Black woman’s interaction with an unidentified Brunswick County Sheriff’s deputy. It seems the woman, Dawn Hilton-Williams, created a facebook post with a video describing the encounter, and characterizing it as a lynching.

“I was just bullied by a racist cop, who threatened to pull me out of the car,” said Hilton-Williams in the 11-minute long Facebook video.

“This is where we got lynched. This is where we got lynched, even in today’s day.”

She goes on to explain that the cop threatened to drag her out of the car, not to kill her, but that in these times, if you’re black, when you get dragged out of a car anything might happen next:

… you get shot or you get Tased, or you get Sandra Blanded

But the cops, perhaps not realizing the consequences, immediately released the body cam video of the traffic stop to defend themselves against charges of racism. Sheriff Brian Roberts explained the thinking behind releasing the video:

I started getting calls from citizens asking what is going on. They had seen a posting and were concerned about how I would allow it to happen

So the video was released and local media immediately took a look. The video shows a fairly straightforward traffic stop. The full transcript of the uninterrupted video is available at the WVTR link, and I encourage you to read it if you’re interested, but if you’d prefer to trust me, I have read the full transcript and I’ve checked most of it against the video. Seems legit. And what it shows is a typical officer making a typical speeding stop with a typical driver who claims that the 55 mph limit wasn’t posted.

The officer is friendly at the beginning and seems professional throughout. Hilton-Williams, upon being presented with the ticket, refuses to sign it. The deputy then proceeds fairly calmly:

Hilton-Williams: I’m not going to sign that ticket.

Deputy: Uhh ma’am, okay.

Hilton-Williams: I don’t have to sign it.

Deputy: So ma’am.

Hilton-Williams: But I appreciate it.

Deputy: Hold on… So, what you are signing here is a promise to either come to court or promise to prepay. It is not an admission of guilt. It’s only a promise to me that you’re going to get it taken care of by either coming to court or prepaying it. If you refuse to sign the summons at this point, I’m gonna have to get you out of the side of the police car, place you under arrest and take you in front of a magistrate. I will get your vehicle towed and go from there. So, yes ma’am you do not have a choice…

Hilton-Williams: My cousin is on the phone.

Deputy: I don’t care about that. I don’t care who’s on the phone.*2 I’m talking to you right now. You do not have a choice but to sign summons. See thank you. I knew you was gonna sign it. I appreciate it very much and you have a safe day. Okay, thank you.

Whether that unidentified cop is racist or not, there’s nothing in the video showing any racism on the part of the deputy. He only raises his voice a small amount, never to the point of yelling, and only during a single passage when Hilton-Williams is interrupting. The rest of the time he’s either neutral-professional or friendly-professional.

So of course the sheriff’s office felt like releasing this video is a good thing for them. It is going to effectively clear them of Hilton-Williams’ accusation in the eyes of the vast majority of people who watch it. But here’s the catch: law enforcement agencies all over the country are consistently declining to release video in the aftermath of incidents when racism, brutality, and other serious allegations are leveled. Moreover, the agencies typically say that they can’t release such footage. But good cops and good agencies are going to embrace transparency, and even bad cops and bad agencies will often be successfully tempted to release footage when they get things right.

However, if cops establish a pattern of consistently releasing footage – speedily and unedited! – where they get things right, then eventually when agencies choose not to release footage quickly or unedited, withholding the video is going to be seen as an admission of guilt.

This is the real threat body cams pose to cops. Yes, it absolutely will exonerate them when they do things right. Yes, good cops should welcome that. But in the past all cops were taken at their word that they did everything right and citizens were always lying. That protected bad cops and good cops equally. In a world where video is the standard – not mere acceptance of an officer’s word – bad cops and good cops have different interests with respect to video. The bad cops don’t want it, and even the good cops aren’t helped by it any more than they were helped by the old system where they simply said that they were good cops. I mean, no punishment after swearing your a good cop isn’t any worse than no punishment after showing the video that proves you’re a good cop (or at least proves that you acted the good cop in a particular situation).

For the cops, resistance to body cams depended on the fact that good cops weren’t getting any benefit, so bad cops’ resistance had no counterweight. In fact, even cops that are doing their jobs right might still be jerks (well trained and professionally responsible jerks, maybe, but jerks). Those cops whose failings are personal but not professional could still see themselves as losing something with the introduction of body cams because they valued being trusted unilaterally and unconditionally, and even the equivalence of outcome wouldn’t matter if what they valued was a process where the truth was what they declared the truth to be.

But whether Fergusson produced justice or not (it didn’t, nor did any of the many other reports and commentaries on police racism or police abuse of power) it seems it has had one important effect: cops are now much more aware that many important, respected members of their communities, people who could make their lives and jobs more difficult, don’t automatically trust their word.

This is a hugely important first step, because it forces the second step: good cops (or at least cops who did their jobs correctly) quickly releasing unedited footage of interactions where they followed procedure in both letter and spirit, displaying no hostility and encouraging no escalation.

Only when good cops accept that their word isn’t good enough to define what truth is will good cops really believe that body cams are of benefit to them. And only when the good cops believe that body cams help them will they provide the counterweight we need to bad cops who resist body cams.

And only when that counterweight exists for long enough will their begin to be pressure on cops who weakly resist cams to drop their resistance in order to be seen as good cops. And only when the large amount of weak resistance erodes will we be able to firmly tag the remaining minority of cops as people who are seeking only impunity to consequences when harming the community and not some nebulous benefit to the community.

And only then will supervisors be willing to punish cops simply for turning cams off, or for declining to wear them. Only then will supervisors be likely to fearlessly push forward with purchases of cams which can’t be turned off.

And only then will juries reach the point where they really are able to leave behind the tradition of trusting officers’ words implicitly and instead evaluate all the evidence even when it leads toward the conviction of cops for abuse of power, for violence, for misconduct, for perjury.

This is a tiny incident in rural Virginia where a woman saw something she was willing to describe a lynching in the same encounter where few others would see the same thing. The emotional power of the word lynching, the clear professionalism (other than choice of music) by the deputy, the viral attention to the incident after the fact all conspired to cause one agency to make one decision that seems almost inconsequential because it is so seems so logical that an agency would release such footage.

But this is exactly how it starts: the denial isn’t enough. The public demands the video. Sooner than we think we will reach a place where the average person no longer reflexively trusts cops. And it won’t be the worst incidents and the withheld footage that gets largely-indifferent masses to give up reflexive trust. No, it will be the cases where cops are in the right that will normalize actually watching the video because cops want you to actually watch the video. But seeing the evidence for themselves will eventually become expected, become the new normal. And that desire to see the evidence for themselves is incompatible with reflexive trust.

So thank you, Brunswick County. You not only have a decent deputy working for you and apparently a reasonable sheriff to boot, but you’re also helping us rid the US of the single biggest barrier their can be to successful, fundamental reform of law enforcement.


*1: the second biggest discrepancy I noticed was the omission of the deputy’s use of “alright” as a meaningless transition word, the way some people might use “so” or even “uh”. The biggest discrepancy is hardly more important. In the patch where the cop discusses removing Hilton-Williams from the vehicle, he first says that he will remove her from the police car, then stops and restarts saying “your car” before continuing. The transcript doesn’t catch the stop/restart and so looks like the deputy didn’t notice the small mistake of misidentifying the car she was currently in. That’s it.

If you’re wondering about watching the full video, it’s about 9 minutes, though the first minute or so merely shows pulling over and approaching the rental car Hilton-Williams is driving and far too much of it includes music that isn’t much my cup of tea even if the percussionist seems skilled.

*2: For the record, my impression of the “I don’t care about that” passage was that it was spoken in a neutral-to-positive way showing that the cop didn’t mind the action was being overheard, not in a negative way. This is a good thing when so many cops abuse their power to prevent citizens from using their first amendment rights to photograph or take video of uniformed officers performing their public duties when those duties occur in public places.





  1. fledanow says

    I’m skeptical of arguments that assert that “this is the only way that X can happen” as I am constantly surprised by the unexpected ways things do come about. That said, I agree that the swift release of the video shows that videos can be released, unedited, and quickly, and that we will come to expect this as the norm. And the more evidence there is contradicting the stories of the bad cops, the less trust we will give to the unsupported testimony of the police, to the benefit of the criminal justice system.

    May I add that if what you wrote above simply rolled off your fingers without significant revision, you win the Heights of Cogency Award. I could even follow your post on postmodernism, something that would normally leave me babbling in a corner, one eye twitching from an incipient migraine.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Yeah, I do normally write without significant revision, and that was true here as well. Most of my revisions are where I realize I’m getting too far into a digression and cut and paste something to the end, turn it into a footnote, then do a minor rewording of the in-body text to make sure two sentences that didn’t used to be next to each other now flow together.

    And, fair enough about the skepticism regarding “the only way it could happen” arguments. You’re right that I shouldn’t be so confident. Point taken.

    Welcome to my blog, btw!

    My best loved post is this one if your interested, though obviously feel free to read only what you want.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    I’m thinking of getting a body-cam, they are getting cheaper all the time.
    I think everyone should have one. Everyone.
    If Everyone of us had one (or two), the cops needn’t bother.

  4. says

    I’ve served on juries twice. With cops being shown to lie on their reports by security cameras I don’t think I can trust cops’ testimony anymore.
    I need to see what my local police departments do about lying cops, whether they give a liar the severe punishment they deserve or whether they let the lying cops off with a slap on the wrist.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Bodycam footage is EVIDENCE. Concealing or tampering with evidence is a crime… isn’t it?

    More and more the US police show themselves to be not a public service, but closer to a hostile occupying military force.

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