Printed: 2020-08-07

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Armed with Cameras…

David Brin

Contrary Brin

March 15, 2015

What does it mean for the world to flow with light? Let's start this example of sousveillance in action… a professor and his students showcase where the FDA buried information about drug company misconduct. Now, the standard response to something like this is to build and then build some more upon our callouses of cynicism. Oh no, we see more villainy, proving that all institutions are corrupt!  Instead of yes! We just caught some villainy! Proving that we can—with grinding but relentless hard work—improve our institutions, the way our parents and grandparents did!

Light is penetrating previously dark corners. But the real lesson here is not the cynical one pushed by both left and right -- and by Hollywood -- that institutions are inherently hopeless. They have functions. Every episode of revealed skullduggery -- from the SAE frat-jerks to Ferguson's racist fine-factory -- is not cause for despair, but rather evidence that supervision and light are the only tools we have, to ensure that they function better. Every act of asserted accountability proves they haven't wrecked democracy.  Not yet.

This is no fairy tale.  Justice and happy endings aren't guaranteed.  Martin Luther King Jr. did not promise the path would be linear, but an "arc" that will sweep toward justice only if most (not all) of us pull on it, like gravity.  

Want an example?

== It will take a lot of these... ==

"A Louisiana man was paid $50 to deliver a summons in a brutality case to a police officer, as he left a courthouse. Hours later, the man was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer; the claim was that he had attacked the officer on the courthouse steps, slapping him with the summons and in effect striking him hard enough to move him back several feet. Charges were supported by two ADAs at the scene. For two years, prosecution against the man proceeded.

"Unfortunately for these particular, conniving officers, the ADAs, and the DA, the man had asked his wife and nephew to film him delivering the summons so he could prove he had done so. Eventually, the case came to the jurisdiction of the Louisiana State AG's office - where all charges were promptly dropped. The man is currently pursuing a civil-rights lawsuit against the law enforcement officials involved."

We are at a cusp when authority figures with bad habits will soon see those bad habits exposed, not by happenstance, but systematically and regularly, by technologically enhanced citizen power. 

Let's be clear about one thing; we can't do it alone. Professionals must be our allies against thugs. 

I've often pointed out that good cops deserve not just respect but also some allowance for the tension and adrenaline that comes with an extraordinarily difficult job. A sliding scale must allow for the fact that good cops will have an occasional really bad day. Those days should be judged by their rarity, and whether the resulting harm was fairly small.

On the other hand, it is illogical and self-defeating for them to show “solidarity” with thugs on the force. Good public servants already face a choice -- to find this new sousveillance trend  daunting? To reflexively close ranks and show solidarity with uniformed hoolums... or else realize, deep down, that they are different from the badged ruffians, and share no common interests them.

With the advent -- and now widespread adoption -- of cop lapel-cameras, after Obama Administration and court rulings that citizens have a blanket right to record their interactions with police, the road ahead is clear. Especially as ghetto youths will now, more and more, be doing what I predicted in both Earth and The Transparent Society -- stepping out of the car with their own lapel cams beaming -- real-time -- a record into the cloud.

Moreover, the good side of the light-wave is evident. It's getting easier to catch bad guys and to get convictions, separating perpetrators and proving what they did, while assisting the innocent to say "I didn't do it, go way now, oh public servant, and bother the guys who did."

== Cop Cams and Accountability ==

A trend? Things are changing in Tijuana -- where the police department is issuing body cameras to cops on the street -- with the aim of turning off corruption and bribes. Sure you cynics, there will be ways around it. Yeah, sure, only the stupid half will get caught this the start. But eliminating the corrupt / stupid cops is a bad And this is only the beginning. 

Now another piece to the puzzle. The largest organization of public defenders in the United States is building a “cop accountability” database, aimed at helping defense attorneys question the credibility of police officers in court.  The contents of the Legal Aid database have been harvested from a variety of sources, e.g. civil lawsuits filed against the city, criminal trials in which a police witness was deemed not credible by a judge, and news reports about police wrongdoing. Information also comes from grievances that New Yorkers have filed against individual officers with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
I cannot reiterate often enough the thing to keep in mind -- that this must not become a "zero tolerance" situation, in which a good officer must pay harsh penalties for a flash of temper or a lapse in procedure that was an exception and that wrought no major, lasting harm. 

There must be a scaled allowance for the fact that we all are descended directly from cavemen.  We need these folks! Their job is hard and often ambiguous and tense. A sliding scale of leeway must be part of it, before a cop's credibility sinks and his comrades decide that he's a bad apple, making things harder on them all. But they, too, must embrace this sliding scale, or they will have foresworn our trust.

== Accountability ain't easy ==

Did you think this was settled? It will be a fight for years.
Texas bill would make recording police illegal: Citizens with cameras would not be permitted to record police activity within 100 feet of an officer on duty. The offense would be a misdemeanor. This bill would contradict the precedent set in 2011 by an appeals court, which found that citizens are allowed to record police.

Forgive me for getting political, but are you surprised by the red-gray hue of this troglodytism? After Florida and Georgia fought hard against this new and vital civil right?

Seriously, some of you are smart enough to start awakening to our national tragedy. The hijacking and betrayal of American conservatism.

== The left is not guilt free ==
An Aside:  Should we rid our police forces of thugs?  Sure, and light will help. But we need the same thing regarding school teachers

In fact, this is one area where liberalism has been just plain wrong for decades, giving an unnecessary (and rather lonely) legitimate talking point to the Right. 

Sure, teachers must be protected from capricious bullying! There must be leeway and process. A burden of proof -- that parents and administrators and teacher peers and quality standards can all play a role in satisfying.

But the firing of bad teachers is a duty that we owe our kids. It should not take years and years. Especially when everyone -- parents, peers, administrators, standards and students(!) agree that an awful maniac or dope or lazy bum simply has to go.

Sure, I can accept your instincts to protect the teaching profession. Now squint and envision those cops closing ranks to protect the worst bad apples on the force. You are doing the same damned thing!  And you are doing it wrong if you actually believe the present state of affairs is wholesome.

== Equipping the Neighborhood Watch ==
Back to street transparency... Dropcam Keeps an eye on the neighborhood: Utterly illustrating The Transparent Society,  here’s how, very soon, we will all be cam equipped members of the Neighborhood Watch. The Internet-connected video surveillance camera, Dropcam -- acquired last year by Google’s Nest Labs -- is able to constantly stream video over your home Wi-Fi, and store data to the cloud. You can access the video via your web browser or through mobile apps. 

Writes Brian Chen writes, "Everyday people can use Internet -connected cameras to hold one another accountable or to keep an eye out for each other.” 
If you hate this world, fine, agitate to ban the cams… and then only Big Brother and the other elites will still have them.  Stop shouting at a tsunami to “stop!”
Surf, instead.
And finally...
list of Think Tanks by region/topic. VERY interesting to the few of you who will find it interesting. 😉

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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