Monday, September 8, 2014

Ferguson, Ray Rice, and the Societal Cost of Video Monitoring of Everything

[DISCLOSURE: I am employed by a firm that provides facial recognition software. The views are my own.]

Two recent stories are intersecting nicely together.

The first is the issue of police actions against citizens, as discussed in relation to Ferguson, Missouri and other places. As far as we know, no video exists of the exact moment when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Because of this, we do not know exactly what happened during that encounter. Did Brown attack Wilson? Did Wilson shoot a non-threatening Brown? However, as Nick Gillespie noted last month, there is a solution to this issue, at least in terms of police encounters:

[T]here is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens. These cameras—various models are already on the market—are small and unobtrusive and include safeguards against subsequent manipulation of any recordings.

Predictably, Gillespie was not alone in his suggestion. There has been a near-universal chorus, including a chorus from some police agencies themselves, to require wearable recording cameras. While many civil libertarians believe that this will reduce police misconduct, they have been silent on the other part of this technological move - the fact that these cameras will also record any illegal activity by people that the police encounter. So while the resulting video can be used to exonerate someone who was illegally harassed by police, it can also be used to convict someone who did something illegal in front of the police.

How are the civil libertarians going to react when mandated police video is used to convict a person? Will they demand that video monitoring by police be suspended, to protect individuals against self-incrimination? Perhaps.

In either case, video is powerful. While there is certain power in someone describing something, there is infinitely more power in showing video or photographic evidence of the same thing. Certainly video evidence can be edited, altered, or otherwise manipulated to show one point of view over another, but the power of video is unquestionable.

Further evidence of this is found in the second story, which resulted in a terse tweet within the last hour or so.

Obviously this entire story can't be contained in 140 characters.

As many of you know, a video surfaced on TMZ a few months ago of Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancée (they have since married) out of an elevator. Although the video didn't show it, Rice subsequently admitted that he hit her. While Rice was indicted, he was not convicted of a crime (he entered a diversion program).

Despite his innocence in the eyes of the law, there were calls for the NFL to take action anyway under its personal conduct policy. The NFL did, suspending Rice for a grand total of two games. (Among other things, this was a first offense for Rice, and therefore wasn't necessarily comparable to NFL players who have committed multiple offenses.) After condemnation for the perceived lightness of the offense, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the penalty for future offenders would be raised to a six game suspension for a first offense, and an indefinite suspension (also known as a de facto expulsion) for a second offense.

And that's where things stood, until TMZ posted another video - one that showed what went on in the elevator itself.

In a way, the new video didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. We knew that Rice hit his fiancée. We knew that she was unconscious as a result.

However, the power of video ensured that the revelation of the actual moment when Rice hit her would provoke new outrage. People who were wishing for a six-game suspension yesterday were asking for immediate banishment today. The facts didn't change - our perception did, resulting in outrage.

And that outrage resulted in the Baltimore Ravens doing something that they hadn't done in a previous incident, when another Ray (Ray Lewis) was charged with murder. Heck, the Ravens just erected a statue honoring Lewis.

But they probably won't be erecting a statue to Ray Rice.

Instead, the Ravens released Rice from his contract.

This has meaning outside of Ferguson, Missouri and Atlantic City, New Jersey. As technology continues to pervade every corner of our society, it is likely that more and more of our lives will be documented on video - videos from government agencies, videos from companies, and videos from individuals.

Will that result in future changes in how alleged criminals are perceived - and punished?
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