What do you think the odds are that a guy who teaches about the ills of racial profiling would be accused of doing that very thing? Seems unlikely doesn’t it? That’s probably what Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley thought. What do you think the chances are of someone who teaches tactical communications, anger management, law enforcement leadership classes and recently received an award from the local Black Peace Officer’s Association for writing an article on the first African American peace officers on their department would be accused of racial profiling to the executives of their department? If your answer is, about the same as Sergeant Crowley’s, you’re right.
The truth is any officer can be accused of anything on a traffic stop or other contact. When this occurs, people are going to line up and point fingers. The only way that we can protect ourselves is to record our public contacts. I have heard this admonishment for almost my entire twenty-five year career in law enforcement. I’m certain that you have, too. So why is there still so much resistance to heeding it?
The public has no problem documenting what we are doing and a great many departments have done this for years whether we wanted them to or not.
One of the best examples I can think of about the power of recording a contact comes from my own department.
A traffic deputy made it a routine practice to use a pocket tape recorder on every traffic stop. Some might call this paranoid. He felt it was prudent. This was more than a decade ago and the deputy purchased this recorder himself. He made a stop, wrote a routine ticket and the driver gave him the indication that he was merely a contrite motorist. But the man had something else on his mind (other than trying to argue his way out of the ticket). He drove to the sheriff’s station, contacted the watch commander and accused the deputy of soliciting him for sex if he wanted to avoid receiving the citation. When the deputy produced the audio recording of this contact it was the accusing motorist who was facing a criminal investigation and not the deputy.
Once you’ve made the decision to purchase your own recorder the question arises, which one is best? This is a debate that could go on for hours. There are many wonderful products out there, but I recommend applying a theory from the 14th century to solve this 21st century dilemma. Occam’s razor state’s that the simplest solution is the better one. Don’t make this too difficult. Find something inexpensive and convenient for you to access. Video is nice, but recording the audio is the most important thing. Audio captures two of the three components of communication: words and tone. True, non-verbals are missing, but cops usually get in trouble as much for how they say things as what they say. A simple digital recorder that can fit in your shirt pocket will address this problem.
The truth is that if you are doing your job, people will complain about you. Protect yourself and always contact your supervisor if you think someone is going to beef you. Even if they don’t, that heads up is always appreciated. Unless your department has some policy prohibiting it, make the investment and buy a recorder. If you are already provided with one by your agency, be certain that you use it. It is best if we are our own big brother.
Oh, and by the way, the second person accused of racial profiling in the first paragraph of this article was someone very near and dear to the author. So much so that he shares a locker with him. Let me assure you that my locker-mate was very happy that he had a functioning tape recorder with him that day.