It shouldn’t take a viral video to secure justice

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An image from Michael Picard's video, which appears below.

This week, jaw-dropping footage of three Connecticut state police officers appearing to fabricate criminal charges against a protester made international news. Meanwhile, two families lost loved ones to police violence in Oklahoma and North Carolina. Each of these incidents was caught on video. All have inspired outrage from people around the world. It still might not be enough to ensure justice—and that should frighten all of us.

The ACLU of Connecticut is proud to represent the Connecticut protester, Michael Picard, in his lawsuit against the three troopers caught on camera. On Sept. 11, 2015, Michael was protesting near a police DUI checkpoint when the troopers confiscated his video camera and, after announcing “we gotta cover our ass,” appeared to invent criminal charges against him. Unbeknownst to the troopers, they had left Michael’s camera rolling and accidentally filmed the entire incident.

The footage of officers cavalierly seizing Michael’s camera and then apparently framing him is chilling. It seems to show clear violations of Michael’s right to protest and right to record the police in public. The thing that should worry all of us, however, is not just the outrageous acts shown on video — it’s what came after.

It has been more than a year, but Michael has not found justice. The criminal charges against him were dismissed, but it took almost a year.  And the complaint he filed with the state police about what the troopers did to him has, as best as anyone can tell, gone nowhere.

Police and prosecutors have seen the same video footage that everyday Connecticut residents have seen. In fact, they have had access to it for more than a year. Yet the state police have not completed an internal investigation.

If this blatant disregard for justice happens in spite of comprehensive video evidence, we can only imagine how little accountability police face for incidents that have not gone viral on social media. If this is what happens to a white man who police recognized as a peaceful protester, we can only imagine what happens to people of color and those in less privileged positions every single day.

Sadly, we don’t have to imagine. Jose Maldonado, a 22-year-old man, died more than two years ago, in April 2014, in an East Hartford jail cell. Police had tased and punched Jose and pushed him into a concrete wall, despite the fact that he was confined to a cell and unthreatening. The medical examiner determined that Jose’s death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head and cardiac arrest, triggered by the Taser. More than a year later, the state has not released the results of its investigation. And a grieving family has had to live with neither their loved one nor justice.

Police have shown that they cannot police themselves. Indeed, they have sometimes been completely unwilling. While the state of Connecticut has made millions of dollars available for police departments to fund body camera programs, no municipal departments have taken the state up on its offer. Two announced that they would eliminate cameras after funding became available.

In this climate, it is critical for people to exercise their rights to record police. Almost all of us have high-powered tools for transparency in our pockets thanks to cellphone cameras, and we have the right to use them. As Michael’s video shows, however, it is not always safe or feasible to point cameras at armed public employees.

Videos bear powerful witness to injustice, but they also cannot be the only mechanisms to right grave wrongs. The footage of officers trampling on Michael Picard’s rights is outrageous and irrefutable. But it is equally outrageous that he has had to wait for justice.

It is time to acknowledge that Connecticut’s system for ensuring police accountability is broken. State lawmakers must take action to ensure truly independent oversight of police—prosecutors from other jurisdictions do not have enough distance to guarantee impartial and fair investigations of police misconduct.  Police departments should also embrace body cameras and Taser cameras, and establish meaningful guidelines for swiftly releasing footage to the public, so that there is true transparency about how officers interact with the people they are supposed to serve.

Nobody should have to rely on a viral video to secure justice. If Connecticut uses outrageous footage as inspiration for action, no one will have to.

David McGuire is the interim executive director and legislative and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. Learn more about the case at www.acluct.org or on Twitter at @acluct.

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