War on Drugs

Videos Are Making It Hard To Trust the Cops

It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that the powers-that-be habitually lie about their conduct.


There's a lot to dislike about the increasingly pervasive surveillance state, but a little of its danger is offset when the forces of officialdom are themselves captured by the all-seeing eye. All too often, official versions of events turn out to be completely at odds with video and audio records of what actually happened. Given stark discrepancies between some police reports about searches and arrests and video footage of the same events, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion that the powers-that-be habitually lie about their conduct.

In New York, David Yezek is suing police in a case that explains just why drug dealers would install video cameras that watch them going about their business: because they know cops all too well. Yezek's surveillance system caught more than him growing and selling cannabis (allegedly—the police never had the stuff tested); it also recorded police violating his rights and fabricating a story after the fact. According to WIVB, which obtained video-recorded depositions in the lawsuit:

The two officers, Sean Hotnich and Richard Cooper, got several key details wrong in the search warrant affidavit and the police report, according to their depositions.

For example, the police report states that once the two officers entered Yezek's kitchen, "patrol then observed two large bags of suspected marijuana in plain view on the dining room table."

But a security camera aimed directly at Yezek's kitchen table does not show two large bags of suspected marijuana on the table, and certainly none in plain view. Rather, the officers found two large bags of marijuana inside an opaque paper bag on a chair near the table after they got inside Yezek's home and walked to the dining room.

"Got several key details wrong" in this case should probably be interpreted as "manufactured out of whole cloth." It's an even bigger deal than it seems because allegedly seeing two large bags of marijuana in plain view was the excuse the officers used for entering and searching Yezek's home. Instead, they searched the place without legal authority and then invented a justification after the fact. But wait, there's more!

In addition, the police report states that Yezek granted permission for the officers to enter his house. But the security camera outside Yezek's home shows both officers entered an enclosed mudroom after one of them pushed open a gated door of the residence without permission.

In summary, the cops barged into a house without permission, tossed it without legal authority, and then lied about the search to conceal their misdeeds.

"If Yezek did not have the security cameras in and outside of his home, he very well could be sitting in prison," one of Yezek's attorneys told reporters. So, score one for turning the surveillance state's capabilities against the authorities.

Yezek's lawsuit against Gowanda, New York, police may result in rare vindication for somebody on the receiving end of official fibbing, but he's hardly alone in pointing to surveillance footage that tells a story at odds with the official account—sometimes with very high stakes.

"San Antonio police dash camera video obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders contradicts the department's long-held narrative that a woman shot and killed by an SAPD sergeant in early 2019 had pointed a weapon at him prior to being shot," the TV station reported last year after the shooting death of Hannah Westall.

In addition, police originally insisted that there was no bodycam recording of the incident. That turned out to be untrue and Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has reopened his investigation.

Also in Texas, police sat on a cellphone recording that Sandra Bland made of her own arrest during a 2015 traffic stop. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later, fueling the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. A lawyer for Bland's family "said the video, by showing Ms. Bland with a cellphone in her hand, seriously undercut the trooper's claim that he feared for his safety as he approached the woman's vehicle," according to The New York Times.

Like Yezek, Bland recorded her own footage. But as the San Antonio case shows, it's often the police's own cameras that contradict them.

"A California police officer's body camera footage of an arrest that left a 26-year-old man dead was released Tuesday, contradicting the department's earlier sanitized narrative of what happened," Buzzfeed News reported in April after the death in Alameda of Mario Gonzalez. "What the video actually shows, and what police didn't mention at the time, is that officers pinned him to the ground for just over five minutes, at times applying pressure on his back with a knee, until he lost consciousness."  

Sometimes, the police malign the public at large, such as with the police claim that bystanders ignored a rape on a Philadelphia train and might face charges. Video revealed a different story

These situations are pretty egregious, but recordings don't have to contradict police. They can, instead, support the official story, and undermine bogus claims of abuse, rights violations, and innocence by criminal suspects. When cops are above-board, that's exactly the purpose the recordings serve.

But it's all too easy to find situations where police told stories that didn't match recordings of which they were unaware or which they tried to suppress. Sometimes an officer loses a job or even (very rarely) faces charges, but it often leaves the impression that an especially incautious or unconnected cop was thrown to the wolves to appease critics. How many lies remain unexposed is anybody's guess.

It's worth pointing out that the FBI, which often investigates misconduct by state and local police, itself resists recording interviews.

"When the rule prohibiting FBI agents from recording interviews was instituted, the reasoning mostly was that their testimony under oath is credible and means something to the court and the public," James M. Casey, a former FBI agent, explained last year. "That should still hold true."

But "trust us" really doesn't fly the more we see the government's enforcers at work. It's too easy to find examples of them playing fast and loose with the truth when there's a record of their conduct. 

Few people enjoy the prospect of living in a surveillance state with all of our actions watched and, potentially, judged. But, if the authorities are going to point their cameras at us, they need to know that we can return the favor and uncover their own unsavory secrets.