Barack Obama’s Good Idea

by Kevin D. Williamson
Police interactions should all be on video.

Barack Obama once had a good idea, or at least half of one: As the president himself pointed out in his recent remarks on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., during his time in the Illinois state legislature he backed a law requiring that police take video of interrogations and confessions. Here’s a better idea: Capture all police interactions on video.

Doing so can make an important difference in how incidents such as the Brown shooting are understood. Consider the case of Erin Forbes, who was shot dead by police in the Philadelphia suburbs in circumstances similar to those of Mr. Brown.

Erin Forbes was a young black man who was shot by a police officer while unarmed. (Mostly unarmed — more on that in a bit.) Like Mr. Brown, he had robbed a convenience store not long before the shooting, taking a small amount of money from the cash register. Like Mr. Brown, he did not have a criminal record.

But there are differences, too. Mr. Forbes was not from a poor, heavily black community where relations with the police were difficult. Mr. Forbes was, in fact, from a solid, upper-middle-class family. His mother was a professor of African-American studies at Temple University, and he himself had been a soldier in the U.S. Army. His family lived in the suburbs, and he sometimes attended the Presbyterian church in Gladwyne, home of the seventh-wealthiest ZIP code in the United States.

There were protests, charges of racial discrimination, lawsuits and complaints filed. His mother denounced his shooting as “murder.” 

I was at the time the editor of the local newspaper, and at the invitation of the police I had the very strange experience of sitting in a darkened room watching a video of a man being shot to death by police on a street not far from my office. During the course of robbing a Sunoco station in Bryn Mawr of a few bucks, Mr. Forbes had struck the clerk, a man I knew slightly, with a nightstick. (Which was gratuitous — the clerk had a mobility impairment, and you could have robbed him blind with a feather-duster.) Mr. Forbes still had that stick, along with a heavy, 39-inch walking stick, when he was pulled over a few minutes later on City Avenue, the street that both literally and symbolically divides heavily black west Philadelphia from Lower Merion, one of the last of the old-money WASP suburbs. After refusing to get out of the car, Mr. Forbes had been screaming obscenities at police and making a familiar gesture.

And then he got out of the car.

Officer John Salkowski of the Lower Merion police department had the briefest of moments to decide, in a charged situation — in the dark — what, exactly, it was that Mr. Forbes was raising in his hands as he charged police. In fact, it was the walking stick, but in the moment, it might have been anything. Officer Salkowski took a few steps back and then fired his weapon, striking Mr. Forbes in the chest and killing him. Officer Salkowski had moved 17 feet back, the length of his cruiser, as Mr. Forbes rushed toward him. The incident lasted about three seconds.

Seventeen feet. Three seconds.

One might draw any number of conclusions from watching the video of Mr. Forbes’s shooting, but there is no reasonable interpretation of those events that supports claims of excessive force, much less the use of the word “murder.”

I have been, and expect to be, fairly critical of our police departments. Even in the squeaky-clean suburbs of the Main Line, there are police shenanigans: Around the time of the Forbes shooting, my newspaper had uncovered the fact that another nearby suburban police department had been suppressing an arrest report and leaning on one of its officers in order to protect the son of a prominent local politician, who had vandalized the car of a police officer who had ticketed him. (He and his brother would go on to be arrested on charges of assaulting a fireman with a baseball bat.) The scandals of the LAPD and the NYPD are too well known to require repeating here. The deployment of armored vehicles by small-town police departments responding to domestic disturbances is un-republican and ridiculous.

But police are entitled to a fair hearing, too. In the case of Officer Salkowski, the evidence supported the position that he acted properly.

As anybody who has been to a Broadway play or a concert recently can tell you, mobile-phone video is everywhere. Digital cameras are cheap, and the use of them is effectively free. It is economically and technologically possible — and it is deeply desirable — to capture all or most police interactions on video. There are reasonably good video cameras the size of a dime that could simply be pinned on every officer’s hat or next to his badge to provide footage of what actually happened in any given police occurrence. As Mona Charen points out on NRO, a number of cities have already done just that.

You’d think that the police would welcome this.

You’d be wrong. Dangerously wrong, in fact.

The police in Ferguson have been arresting people for making videos of their public servants at work. And they are not alone: Police around the country have been documented harassing and arresting people for the perfectly legal activity of documenting their government in action. This is illegal, unethical, and un-American. We should be moving in the opposite direction: toward transparency, toward providing the public with as much raw data about how their employees go about their business as is possible. I have been to the St. Louis suburbs and am confident that the police making their daily rounds there do not come into contact with national-security secrets.

Civilian authorities oversee the police, and the people oversee them both. While the prospect may seem grisly, much of what is happening in Ferguson might have been forestalled by the release of a video of Mr. Brown’s shooting — assuming that Officer Darren Wilson acted as correctly as Officer Salkowski did. Instead of documentation, we have conflicting reports from sources of varying credibility.

The authorities certainly were eager to provide video of Mr. Brown hijacking a box of cigars. I can only conclude that police who resist efforts to record their work do so because they fear documentation of their mistakes more than they desire the confirmation of their correct behavior.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.