It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughly documented police confrontation than the one last week between actress Daniele Watts, her boyfriend and the Los Angeles police.
There are the TMZ photos of the couple “making out” in an open car in Studio City. There are the eyewitnesses who told the gossip site the couple were having sex in broad daylight.
There are the texts between the boyfriend and assorted media outlets and the couple’s assertions to CNN that, because she is black and he is white, they were being racially profiled.
Most compellingly, though, there is the 24-minute audio recording of the encounter, produced almost immediately after the “Django Unchained” actress went public, verified to the press by the LAPD sergeant who detained her.
Caught on a recording device the officer was wearing, the audio shows just how the encounter escalated from a routine – if embarrassing – police stop to a fight over whether Watts needed to produce identification, to a claim by the actress that either the police or those who had called 911 on the couple were racists.
Once, an encounter like that would have been a liability claim waiting to happen. Instead, the court of public opinion got an electronic eyewitness in the form of the tape.
For this, all parties can probably thank a technology that many law enforcement agencies long resisted – recording devices that can be worn by officers or mounted on patrol cars. Though the LAPD sergeant has said he taped the encounter on his own personal equipment, such devices have increasingly become standard issue for law enforcement. And they should be.
Today, the resolution of celebrity “he-said-she-saids” are just one small advantage of law enforcement cameras and recorders: Just ask the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., where audio or video recordings, had the local police only deployed their equipment, might have infused the tragic police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, with some sorely needed clarity.
In Modesto, officers have been wearing “body cameras” – a receiver attached to a tiny lens that can fit onto sunglasses – since 2012. As we wrote at the time, such cameras are better than having a camera mounted in the car because a camera mounted on the officer will show the viewer what the officer is looking at. Merced police got their first body-mounted cameras in 2011, and they’re now standard issue. This year, police in Manteca and Fresno have also attached the small cameras to their uniforms.
In Modesto, officers are required to activate the cameras with every public interaction (a simple tap does it). Once running, what the camera records is considered evidence. Rarely does it get to that point.
At first, some officers considered such cameras an invasion of privacy or “big brother” trying to look over their shoulders. Now, however, most recognize that the camera is a significant aid to their work and makes life easier if someone claims police misconduct. Just like instant replay in baseball, it’s easy to figure it out from watching the tape.
And that’s what has happened in Los Angeles. The sergeant in the Watts case has cited the recording as proof of his professionalism (unfortunately, he went on talk radio to do it). Watts and her boyfriend have toned down the racially charged rhetoric.
We will not comment on Watts’ acting abilities (that’s the province of critics, not editorial writers), but perhaps if the actress had known she was on camera, she might have acted, well, differently.