Specifically How It Should Not Be Done


Back in 2009 I did some strategy consulting for a company that was building a cop-cam system; they wanted to know if having the data in “the cloud” would be acceptable, and what protections would need to be in place for the customers to trust it. My job was to look for perverse incentives in the design, and to suggest ways to make the storage option more palatable.

I just reviewed the executive summary of my report and I realize now how optimistic and naive I was at the time. The report is all about making sure that the system is trustworthy enough to be seen as evidence, and that the cloud data be recoverable and tamper-proof. At that time, being the person I was at that time, I didn’t realize that the police wanted a system they could tamper with. I’m pretty sure that when they got to the part about publishing sequential hashes of the data (oh, look, blockchain!) the cops little toesies were curling in terror – and here I was thinking “this is great because nobody can challenge the data!” After all, cops would want to have all that cop-cam data so they could exonerate themselves against false accusations.

Yeah. I was naive.

And, when I thought “I am cynical now” I was still naive. Now. I’m cynical, now. [to]

If a Texas cop outfitted with a body camera shoots someone, they get to review not only their own footage but that of every other body cam-wearing officer at the scene before answering questions about it.

It’s easy: “I watch the cop cam video, then adjust my testimony to match what I see.”

That is not in the specifications of a rationally-designed system. In other words, such a system would have to be deliberately designed to work incorrectly. In fact, the system we designed had a process whereby disposable keys were created that would allow a cop’s supervisor to access and flag pieces of video, but the cop would not, and everything was tracked and recorded – the system would be able to tell you what parts of a given archive were accessed, and when. It could build a cool heat-map of a time-grid of video, showing what part was interesting and to whom. It sounds like those features got turned off in the production version, or perhaps the cops bought a cop-cam system that didn’t have any advanced integrity or audit functionality; they probably paid extra for a version without that stuff.

[…] clarify the sweeping body cam law the Texas Legislature passed in 2015, which entitles officers “to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident.”

You gotta hand it to those Texas cops. They figured out a way of preventing cop-cam evidence from contradicting their testimony.

“I think body cam programs are something we desperately need for police accountability,” [Paxton] told the Observer. “But with the way the Legislature wrote the statute, the only ones who really have unrestricted access to the footage are police officers themselves.”

I’m sure the legislature simply made a minor error. It’ll be corrected. Right?

Note, there is no “footage” – it’s all digital media. It ought to be safe-stored, checksummed, and tamper-resistant. What are we going to find out next, that the cops have the ability to delete chunks of the media? (Hint: the delete button is a lie) Back when I was consulting on the cop-cam project, one of the cop department heads we talked to said, “well, they can always drop the camera and back their car up over it.” The cops were already thinking “where is the delete button on this thing?”

It’s like they expect to be giving false testimony. That’s unsettling when you’re talking about people who carry the power to kill. It’s especially unsettling when those people with the power to kill are a bunch of cowards who keep mistaking unarmed black men as life-threateningly scary.

The New York Times has an article about “testilying” by cops. [nyt] That’s a cute word for perjury.

When Ms. Thomas’s lawyer sought to play the video in court, prosecutors in the Bronx dropped the case. Then the court sealed the case file, hiding from view a problem so old and persistent that the criminal justice system sometimes responds with little more than a shrug: false testimony by the police.

“Behind closed doors, we call it testilying,” a New York City police officer, Pedro Serrano, said in a recent interview, echoing a word that officers coined at least 25 years ago. “You take the truth and stretch it out a little bit.”

An investigation by The New York Times has found that on more than 25 occasions since January 2015, judges or prosecutors determined that a key aspect of a New York City police officer’s testimony was probably untrue. The Times identified these cases – many of which are sealed – through interviews with lawyers, police officers and current and former judges.

The cops do it because none of them ever suffer any negative consequences for doing it. Another reason they do it is because it doesn’t affect the rich or powerful: those are the people who can afford to lawyer up and defend themselves. A poor person is going to just have to take a plea bargain.

It’s corruption all the way down. Look at Serrano’s comment: he knows that his buddies are committing perjury. If he’s not doing it himself, he’s allowing them to do it – suddenly everyone is in on it.

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Clearly, cops are never going to, ahem, police themselves. The citizens cannot trust them to behave, and cannot trust them not to try to bypass any controls that are placed on them. The only way to bring any of this under control is for people to always have a camera on any cop they spot in the wild.

Comments

  1. says

    The only way to bring any of this under control is for people to always have a camera on any cop they spot in the wild.

    Would this really work? Let’s assume a paranoid black guy who lives in a dangerous neighborhood wears a body camera at all times. Cops attack him, his camera records the events. Cops notice that they are being filmed. Cannot they just “accidentally” smash and destroy the camera? Let’s assume the cops actually arrest the innocent black guy. While he is in custody, cops can simply take the camera and the recording could get “accidentally” lost. Finally, let’s assume that the video safely makes it to the count. Cannot cops claim that it is invalid, fake, tempered with? Oh, and was it even legal to film cops at work?

    How should a person approach this whole problem in order to ensure that cops cannot sabotage his filming efforts?

  2. says

    There are apps made specifically for this purpose that upload the video to the cloud where the cops can’t do just that.

    And yes, it’s legal to film cops at work.

  3. says

    And yes, it’s legal to film cops at work.

    This one was actually a pleasant surprise for me. I really didn’t expect that. By now I have gotten so used to bad American laws that I always expect the worst. Finding the rare exception feels nice.

    In some European countries it is illegal to photograph and film police officers. In Spain you can even get a fine for taking a photo of an empty police car that’s parked in a disabled parking space. See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/spanish-woman-fined-800-for-taking-picture-of-police-car-in-disabled-parking-space-10458699.html I have also read about countless cases where people who attempted to film police brutality ended up getting beaten up, tasered, arrested, fined, forced to delete the video or any combination of these.

    It’s rare to find a case where U.S. laws are actually better than European laws.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Ieva Skrebele
    I don’t know if Tabby Lavalamp @3 was talking about the USA but she lives in Canada where it is not illegal to film police officers.

  5. vucodlak says

    The New York Times has an article about “testilying” by cops.

    I learned that word from watching Law and Order; in one episode an ADA tells Det. Briscoe, who has just offered to commit perjury to help the prosecution convict a defendant, that “[his] cops don’t testilie.” The man the detective was going to lie about was, in fact, innocent, but Briscoe never receives more than that mild admonishment from the ADA… who turns out to be the real ‘bad guy,’ naturally.

    I was raised on cop shows, but I’ve rather lost my taste for them since I realized that most of them are just straight-up propaganda, designed to prime people to accept this kind of behavior as normal (and even necessary), rather than see it the gross abuse of power that it actually is.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    It’s taken me a while to get here, but yeah, abolish the police.

    I’m already there. However, literally abolishing them entirely would introduce a worse evil: Pinkertons, e.g. private police for the robber-barons, who serve the robber-barons interests even more explicitly.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinkerton_(detective_agency)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homestead_strike#Battle_on_July_6

    If you’re already in that state of mind, please look at some of my suggestions in my google doc about reforming police practices.
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1EJRrzrZAuWv2tU4wz6GZLATBphmx72D__kV-5rdS2Ro/edit#

    In particular, check out my ideas under “Arrest And Bail Reform” and “Other Police Powers Reform”.

  7. komarov says

    “You take the truth and stretch it out a little bit.”

    So that’s what they were doing in the video you posted a while back, with the cops filming themselves planting and then “discovering” drugs. A little bit of stretching. It sounds so harmless.

    From now on every jury should be instructed to disregard testimony from certain witnesses on the grounds that they’re cops. That’s assuming none of the jurors took the precaution of shooting the witness in self-defence because, well, they’re a cop.

  8. says

    The Police are public servants. There is a case to be made that every cop should be on continuous video surveillance, broadcast live in real time to the public, every second they are wearing the Queens uniform.

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

    @Tabby, #10:

    The states will have a damn hard time.

    The behavior is protected by the freedom of the press preserved through the First Amendment of the federal constitution. The states can’t do shit that contravenes the federal constitution. It’s simply not up to them.

    Of course, the way things work is that they can go ahead and change their laws and file prosecutions against people who break them and eventually they’ll file against someone with money or whose case gets sufficient notice to attract competent pro-bono types (like the ACLU). That victim will win their case in federal court, but the state will appeal it. Several years later the practice will end, but in the meantime, how many lives are ruined – or at least injured?

    Yeah, the states can’t change the law, but they can deliberately choose to disregard it for a while, and there’s never a good resolution for that.

  10. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#2:
    How should a person approach this whole problem in order to ensure that cops cannot sabotage his filming efforts?

    Very carefully. With a very small camera, then get the hell out of there and if it turns out that something interesting is in the record, go to the press.

    The question of tampering is not such a concern, really. Sure, it’s plausible that someone would produce a complete fake but … why? People don’t need to make fake videos of cops committing crimes – there are already plenty of real ones. Fortunately, they are becoming more believable all the time, too. Except, unfortunately, there are more of them.

  11. says

    vucodlak@#6:
    I’ve rather lost my taste for them since I realized that most of them are just straight-up propaganda, designed to prime people to accept this kind of behavior as normal

    Would you be surprised if I told you that LAPD chief Darryl Gates was behind the TV show “SWAT”? Cop shows as propaganda go back to the early days of the FBI. The Jimmy Stewart movie The FBI Story was literally written by the FBI. I’m not sure about stuff like CHiPs but it was probably propaganda, too.

    The Clint Eastwood Magnum Force series were particularly interesting: they were propaganda that promoted law enforcement as being particularly murderous, and it was OK. Those ushered in a wave of cop-as-nihilist-carnage-machine like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.

    Cops are great. Cops are your friend. Trust cops. Do not, ever, ever, scare a cop.

  12. says

    Ieva Skrebele:
    It’s rare to find a case where U.S. laws are actually better than European laws.

    Oh, don’t worry. Since ICE and DHS aren’t cops, they insist that they cannot be filmed because terrorists might be using the information to plot, uh, terrorist stuff.

    Do not ask US immigration why you are not allowed to film immigration areas. They will say it’s because of the terror. And when you say “I just got off an airplane; I have been being security screened all day” they are not amused.

  13. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#7:
    I’m already there. However, literally abolishing them entirely would introduce a worse evil: Pinkertons, e.g. private police for the robber-barons, who serve the robber-barons interests even more explicitly.

    Blackwater.

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