See something, record something


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After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security started a national campaign called, “If you see something, say something.” It wanted the public to report any suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement. Terrorists had delivered a deadly blow, and our country was enlisting everyone’s help to prevent another attack.

We have a small number of home-grown “bad guys”, too. They infiltrate every walk of life—public, private and religious. Where there’s a power structure, there’s the potential for abuse of it. But if organizations “self-police,” they can weed out problem people before big problems occur.

And yet, they don’t. Or, won’t.

White police officer, Derek Chauvin, had more than a dozen complaints filed against him during his time as a Minneapolis police officer. It didn’t stop him from boldly placing his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, until he was non-responsive.

Chauvin seemed to have no fear. Perhaps he felt that weak leadership within the police department and a strong police union would protect him.

It may have, if it weren’t for a citizen’s video recording from a smart phone.

The Iowa Legislature acted unanimously to pass police reform measures that include banning most chokeholds, preventing the hiring of officers with felony convictions, and requiring training on de-escalation techniques. Gov. Kim Reynolds didn’t hesitate to sign the bill.

It’s a big, important step in the right direction.

But back to the power of a citizen and a smart phone.

Many newspapers publish some type of police report or sheriff’s report, itemizing dispatch calls. People want to know what’s happening in their community, their neighborhood, or block—even if it’s not breaking news.

Maybe there should be a “citizens’ report” as well—itemized, written descriptions of phone videos capturing the actions of law enforcement.

Submissions would need to be from a recent event. Newspapers are timely.

Submissions would need to clearly convey undisputed information. Newspapers are factual.

And submissions may show wrongdoings by law enforcement, but they could also showcase heroic acts. For example, a video may capture a police officer pulling an individual from a burning car. Newspapers report good news, as well as the bad.

Major events will always be headline news, and social media will make those videos go viral.

But knowledge of smaller incidents within the police force can be important to members of a community, too. If more minor infractions were regularly reported, it might prevent a bigger abuse from occurring in the future. At the same time, a citizens’ report could validate the many good deeds performed by law enforcement.

Frequent recording isn’t fun for anyone, but tapes don’t lie. They can bring justice for an innocent victim or exonerate a wrongly-accused officer. Many in law enforcement already wear body cameras. A cell phone is simply another camera. And when an organization fails to self-police—when it fails to voluntarily remove problem personnel—it invites other solutions to present themselves.

Nearly everyone has a smart phone. Those phones can make a difference.

And it means a positive change could happen without defunding the police, a demand by some that is gaining traction.

Remarkably, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department during a time of unrest in the country. Chicago recently experienced 18 murders within a 24-hour period. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the murders included a father, a high-school student, and a college student. Certainly, their last thoughts in life weren’t about how we’re spending too much money on law enforcement.

Police departments need greater funding and support for the difficult work they do, not less.

And citizens deserve police departments that are more accountable to them, not less.

Smart phones can help with that. If you see something, record something.