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Police Chief Succumbs to Outrage Mob, Fires Officers for Innocent Frivolity

Like the cellphone that liberates you from your office while also permanently tethering you to it, video cameras have been both a blessing and a curse to America’s police officers. In recent months we’ve seen incidents in which officers accused of misconduct were vindicated by video captured by body-worn or in-car cameras. In May, for example, the president of the Timmonsville, South Carolina chapter of the NAACP took to Facebook to allege that a police officer in that city had racially profiled him and spoke to him discourteously during a traffic stop. But the police video of the encounter revealed he had, to understate things considerably, embellished the details.

Also in May, a woman stopped by an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety made the shocking claim that the trooper sexually assaulted her in the course of arresting her for drunk driving. The officer’s video showed she had fabricated the whole thing.

But some cops are finding that the tools that can save you can also take you down. In Lorain, Ohio, a police officer was fired after stopping and detaining his daughter and her boyfriend without legal cause. The footage captured on the squad car’s dash camera showed that the officer, a 26-year veteran, allowed his fatherly concerns for his daughter to cloud his professional judgment.

Sometimes, however, police video can be used unscrupulously, generating controversy where none ought to exist. Such was the case in Roswell, Georgia, north of Atlanta, where two police officers have been fired over some innocent frivolity that was captured on body-worn cameras. The footage was obtained by a local news station, which aired it in a sensationalized “investigative report” as though it had uncovered some major scandal. It was no such thing.

Here’s what happened. Last April, Roswell P.D. Officer Courtney Brown was driving in a marked cruiser along Route 92, a divided road with three lanes in each direction. It had just stopped raining and the street was wet, conditions that to a cautious driver would suggest a strict observation of the posted 45 mph speed limit.

As shown on the officer’s dashboard camera, a Mercury Sable passed the police car on the right at a speed that was clearly well above 45, prompting Brown to pull the car over. Driving the Mercury was Sarah Webb, a 24-year-old hairdresser, who told Brown she had been speeding because she was late for work. Other officers arrived at the scene of the stop, among whom was Kristee Wilson. As captured by Brown’s body camera, she and Wilson discussed the enforcement options available in dealing with the unsafe driver: a citation and release, or a custodial arrest.

Wilson’s cellphone had a “coin-toss” app, which, on an apparent lark, she used to aid in the decision. “Heads arrest, tails release,” Wilson says, but when the result came up tails, the officers arrested Webb anyway.