Let’s Start Videotaping Every Encounter With Philly Police

Police corruption won't solve itself. It's time citizens took a stand.

It’s time for us — all of us — to start watching the watchers.

One good-slash-bad effect of last week’s revelation that there would be no charges against Philly cops in the series of cases that was reported in the Daily News’ Pulitzer-winning “Tainted Justice” series is the realization, finally, that the Philly Police Department’s bone-deep culture of corruption will not fix itself, won’t be rooted out with half-measures, and must, somehow, be broken.

Here’s where I’m supposed to say that there are many good cops in Philadelphia, and that’s true. It also hardly matters anymore. If “stop and frisk” is supposedly applied to the city populations where the most criminals are to be found, then it’s a wonder the men and women in blue can ever be bothered to leave the station house — they’d be too busy working each other over.

Note to the good cops: The bad cops make your job harder. They make good citizens mistrust you and vulnerable citizens subscribe to the “don’t snitch” ethos. They don’t just make the city worse on their own — though they certainly do — but they help foster a culture of lawlessness that makes the city dangerous to everyone.

There are any number of routes to pursue in finally bringing the corrupt cops to account. The Daily News’ Will Bunch has several good ideas here. My contribution?

It’s time for all of us — every single Philadelphia citizen — to record video of every single encounter we have with police. Every one.

This is also kind of a scary idea, because it’s pretty clear that Philly police don’t like being recorded. But that’s part of the problem: Pennsylvania citizens have every right — so long as they’re not interfering with official duties — to record police as they go about their official duties. Commissioner Charles Ramsey has affirmed this. Officers are, in theory at least, duty-bound to observe that right. So it’s time we citizens exercised that right, while always, always being respectful to the officers we record.


It’s been two years since the New York Civil Liberties Union unveiled its “stop-and-frisk” app to let citizens record and submit their encounters with police. (To be clear: It’s unwise to record police if they’re trying to arrest you; if an arrest is taking place in your neighborhood, though, you’re free as a bystander to record as long as you keep some distance.) Since then, NYCLU officials say, more than 10,000 videos have been submitted by private citizens — though none has, as yet, led to an ACLU lawsuit.

“We’ve yet to get that Rodney King video, so to say,” Jen Carnig, a spokesman for the NYCLU, told me Tuesday. But she judges the app a success.

“We know that police know they’re being watched much more,” Carnig said. “It also reminds people of their rights vis-a-vis the police.”

That, at least, is a start. Local ACLU officials have seemed reluctant to release a similar app, and that’s too bad. No, video hasn’t finished off bad cops in Philly — cops who beat, abuse, and rob citizens on tape are all still on the job. But mounting video evidence the system is broken will eventually,  I think, make that culture of corruption unsustainable.

Then maybe we can push back against a union whose main function seems to be to protect corrupt cops. Then maybe we can impose new work rules that allow the city to rid itself of bad cops who otherwise stick in the job until retirement. Then maybe the good guys can finally win. Right now, they’re not.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.