Steve Chapman
Police in Union City, Calif., used to have to investigate at least a dozen complaints a year from citizens claiming mistreatment by officers. Then the cops began wearing miniature video cameras that provide a record of their activities. Suddenly, dissatisfaction abated.

"People come in and talk about making a complaint, but then we show them the video and they moonwalk out the door," Commander Kelly Musgrove told StateTech Magazine last year. Maybe the citizens were lying before. Maybe the officers improved their conduct. But locals somehow don't find much police abuse to report.

That's not the case everywhere. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of citizens by stopping and frisking them without a good reason and in a racially discriminatory pattern.

The NYPD carried out nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. What they generally have in common is that when the victims feel violated, it's their word against the cops'. This decision came in a lawsuit filed by 19 plaintiffs, and U.S District Judge Shira Scheindlin acknowledged the difficulty of "finding facts based on the often conflicting testimony of eyewitnesses."

But she devised a measure that will help judges make better assessments: ordering police in one precinct of each borough to begin wearing cameras. The NYPD thinks its stops are reasonable and nondiscriminatory? If so, the videos will prove it.

It can use the help. What stood out in the litany of facts cited by Scheindlin is how rarely the intuition of savvy street cops proves reliable.

Between 2004 and 2009, she noted, New York cops searched 2.28 million people for weapons -- and 2.25 million of them, 98.5 percent, had none. Of 4.4 million stops, only 6 percent led to an arrest, which means the cops were wrong 16 times as often as they were right.

Supporters of the policy will take this to prove that bad guys are scared of carrying pistols for fear of being busted. But if they are being deterred, why are cops so often convinced they are not? Shouldn't thugs who leave their guns at home behave less suspiciously than those who don't?

Unless, of course, the men in blue are deciding to stop and frisk pedestrians for reasons that are imaginary or dishonest. That, the judge concluded, is what occurs much of the time.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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