So, while the police are watching the public, who’s watching the police? Years ago, the answer to that was, “Good question.” But the invention of the camcorder changed all that. Now the answer is “The public.”
The flashpoint was a 1991 bystander’s videotape that caught four Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King after he was on the ground as other officers just stood by and watched. The tape was handed over to the media, providing irrefutable evidence of what black communities in L.A. had been screaming about for years: police brutality.
The King videotape was a game changer. Well, sort of. Although the four officers recorded beating King went to trial in 1992, none were convicted.
And then all hell (aka L.A.) broke loose.
Since then, many more incidents involving questionable police behavior have been captured on camcorders and more recently, on cell phones and digital cameras. This levels the playing field, doesn’t it? It used to be your word against the officer’s. Guess whose word carries more weight in a courtroom. Because police officers never lie. Or beat people up.
Except when they do.
Consider the January 2009 killing of an unarmed 22-year-old man, shot in the back by an Oakland BART officer. While he was face down on the ground, no less. The officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed he mistook his own pistol for a taser, and eventually was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail.
Had a bystander not recorded the entire incident on a cell phone, Mehserle likely wouldn’t have been convicted of anything at all. He would’ve claimed the suspect reached for a weapon, he feared for his life, and – bang. Mehserle would’ve walked scot-free. “But we saw the whole thing, and that’s not what happened,” witnesses would have said. Sorry, folks. Your word against the officer’s. End of story.
Of course, cops like the ones in the King beating and the BART killing don’t represent the entire police force, who put their lives on the line every single day to protect us. Ninety-nine percent of the police force are honest, noble, brave people. But there’s that other 1 percent, and that 1 percent likely represents 99 percent of the police brutality caught on videotape, and 100 percent of the reason why some folks mistrust police officers.
One such citizen, Michael Allison, 42, of Robinson, Illinois, didn’t trust the officers who came onto his property to investigate some unregistered vehicles there. Although Allison had no criminal record himself, he wanted to make sure that everything that transpired during the visit was documented, so he recorded a video. What happened next will blow your mind: Allison is now facing 75 years — yes, years — in prison for five felony counts of eavesdropping. Eavesdropping, for God’s sake! Mehserle only got two years for killing an innocent man, and Allison faces 75 for pushing a button on his cell phone! Clearly, Justice isn’t just blind, she’s brain-dead!
Now, you’d think such lunacy would get thrown, if not laughed, right out of court, but no, this is serious business in Illinois. Crawford County States Attorney Tom Wiseman is hell-bent on putting Allison behind bars, where he’ll never again be a menace to society. You see, in Illinois, an archaic eavesdropping law translates into a felony if it involves recording a police officer without his/her consent. Even if it’s in public, even if that same police officer is videotaping you without your consent (perfectly legal, by the way), if you do the same, you’ll go to jail.
Go google “Michael Allison eavesdropping” and you’ll find all the ugly details of this story. A local Illinois ABC station has been following it dutifully, and highlighting some interestingly perverse facts, such as that the sentence in Illinois for eavesdropping is greater than it is for rape. There’s one for the “WTF” file.
Why should we care what happens in Illinois? Because it’s not the only state that has this law on the books. And if Allison is convicted, other states might follow suit. And there you have the beginning of the end of our country and our Constitution.
Think it can’t happen here? Guess again, comrade.
And, a little side note: Why should a police officer, whose sworn duty is to uphold the law at all times, care if he’s being recorded? Only one possible answer: Because he’s breaking the law and doesn’t want to get caught! And this is different from your average garden variety criminal how?
That ABC station’s coverage includes other incidents where citizens were abused by officers for recording their actions. One woman was dragged off her own front lawn and arrested for recording an incident with her cell phone. The cell phone of another man was snatched away by an officer and smashed on the spot after he’d recorded an officer fatally shoot someone. But truth prevailed. Although the phone was smashed, its memory card — and the evidence — survived. And made it to the local news station.
So. If you record a police officer brutalizing or even killing someone, who should be charged with the felony? Should pushing a button on a cell phone carry a greater penalty than pumping a bullet through someone’s back, particularly someone who, legally, is still innocent? If Allison loses his case, the answer may be yes. And if it is, we’re back, back, back in the USSA, my friend. Oops. I mean “comrade.” I have to get used to that.