The question was first posed by Juvenal, a Latin poet whose life spanned the first and second centuries: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Translation: “Who watches the watchmen?”
The old question finds new relevance in an era of heightened concern about police brutality, where cameras are omnipresent and police misbehavior routinely goes viral. These days, all of us watch the watchmen, a de facto citizen’s review board armed with cellphone cameras.
Why not? Police certainly use sophisticated versions of the same gadgets to watch us. Cameras catch us speeding and running red lights. There is even a camera that reads your license plate and checks for warrants. All that notwithstanding, police have long resisted the idea that citizens have a right to record them at work.
The ante has been upped in recent years amid a flurry of citizen, dashcam and surveillance videos capturing questionable police behavior ranging from a man killed by a chokehold in New York to the takedown of a 15-year-old girl in a bikini in Texas, to a man in Delaware kicked in the head while complying with an order to get on the ground, to a New Jersey man having a police dog sicced on him after he was subdued, to a man shot in the back in South Carolina.
Which brings us to the unfortunate thing Rahm Emanuel said earlier this month at a summit of police officials and politicians in Washington. In explaining a recent uptick in violent crime, the Chicago mayor said cops have gotten “fetal.” He added, “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early and it’s having an impact.”
No, he is not known to have been drunk. And for the record, police chiefs and elected officials from other cities reportedly seconded his remarks. They are calling it the YouTube effect.
In response, a few things must be said.
One: Had it been Emanuel’s intention to make police seem petulant, pouty and entitled, he could hardly have chosen more effective language. Small wonder a police union official promptly denied that officers have returned to the womb or are otherwise giving less than their best effort.
Two: Emanuel’s city was a killing field long before the recent spate of viral video embarrassments. Exactly how long have his officers been “fetal”? And what did he blame before he blamed YouTube?
Three: There is a virtually foolproof strategy for police to avoid Internet mortification. Three syllables: Do your job. Then there'll be no YouTube videos to worry about.
It is disappointing to see President Obama’s former chief of staff join the ranks of those who insist we must treat police like hothouse flowers or Faberge eggs. First, we are told we may not criticize bad cops because that means we hate all cops. Now, apparently, we may not criticize them because doing so hurts their feelings.
Look: It is important to be concerned about police morale. But what about the morale of Eric Garner’s family? Or Walter Scott’s? Or Freddie Gray’s? Or Tamir Rice’s? What about the morale of all the families who daily send sons – and daughters – into unforgiving streets, honestly unsure if the police – their police – will be friends or foes? Is it OK if we spare some concern for them, too?
This is about accountability, something that has been absent from police interactions with the public for far too long. And where there is no accountability, justice is tenuous. The plain truth is, cameras are here to stay; this genie will not go back in the bottle. Police will not stop the watchers from watching.
But a smart cop will make sure there’s nothing to see.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.