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Finally, I spoke with Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. Pasco, who supports these arrests, says he’s worried that video could be manipulated to make police officers look bad. “There’s no chain of custody with these videos,” Pasco says. “How do you know the video hasn’t been edited? How do we know what’s in the video hasn’t been taken out of context? With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it’s admissible under the rules of evidence. That’s not the case with these cell phone videos.”
But what about cases where video clearly contradicts police reports, such as the McKenna case in College Park?
"You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report," Pasco says. "Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures."
Whether citizen video should be admitted as evidence (and it would seem to be pretty easy to discern if a video has been altered) is a different question from whether citizens should be arrested and sent to prison for recording cops. I mention Michael Allison’s case to Pasco, and ask if he supports the Illinois law.
"I don’t know anything about that case, but generally it sounds like a sensible law and a sensible punishment," Pasco says. "Police officers don’t check their civil rights at the station house door."
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.