Fault Lines
21 June 2017

Sandra Bland and the Irony of Jail Surveillance Cameras

July 22, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The following are a few places where surveillance cameras have recorded video of me in the last day or so. At the gas pump where I refueled my car. At the counter of the convenience store where I bought a pack of cigarettes. At the Target store where I inadvertently spent too much of my paycheck.

The hallways and common areas of the law school where I work have cameras. The entrance to and common areas of my apartment building. The parking garages of both. I could go on.

So could you.

Where was there apparently not a surveillance camera recording video? In cell 95 of the Waller County Jail in Texas. Which is a shame, because that’s where jail officials found Sandra Bland’s dead body hanging by a plastic trash bag on July 13.

What Happened to Sandra Bland?

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office claims that Ms. Bland committed suicide while she was in police custody after a traffic stop three days earlier turned confrontational. Ms. Bland’s family and friends suspect that she was murdered. They point out that her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University had hired her only days before, and she appeared to those around her to be excited and hopeful for her future. She didn’t seem suicidal.

Waller County has released limited video recordings of Sandra Bland’s time in custody. On Monday, officials offered the public about three hours of surveillance video taken from outside her jail cell. The Sheriff’s Office insists that the video substantiates their report that no one entered cell 95 in the time between the last security check when she was seen alive and when her body was discovered later that morning.

Cynics might shift uncomfortably in their seats when they learn that there is a gap in the footage for several minutes. Sandra Bland was reportedly checked on by a male officer at 7:17 a.m., but the video skips for several minutes beginning at 7:18 a.m. Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis assured members of the press that the gap should be of no particular concern because the cameras are motion activated. If no one is near the entrance to the cell, the camera won’t record.

Whew. I know I feel better.

In the wake of recent high profile incidents of police misconduct, expanded use of dash cams and body cams by law enforcement officers has become a hot talking point. Video footage might deter bad behavior by both police and the people with whom they interact. It would at least offer the possibility of an important piece of evidence in any subsequent investigations or prosecutions.

Cops sometimes lie. Citizens sometimes lie. Cameras don’t lie, right?

Sandra Bland’s case introduces a new element to the public debate over cops and cameras. Why aren’t there more surveillance cameras in jails?

Why Aren’t There More Cameras In Jails?

Many jail facilities do have cameras recording at least some of what’s going on inside.

As Sandra Bland’s case seems to highlight, though, even facilities with some coverage don’t necessarily cover everywhere. Whether the video from outside cell 95 is trustworthy or not, there is no video coverage from inside the cell.

Cameras don’t come cheap, of course. So, finances pose a problem for police departments interested in investing in improved surveillance equipment. But beleaguered budgets aren’t the only obstacle.

Video surveillance of jail cells requires a careful balancing of security interests and the privacy interests of those held.

Consider a couple of sexy examples. A surveillance video of Justin Beiber urinating in a Florida jail cell went viral. Mexican prison officials revealed that billionaire cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped by taking advantage of an intentional blind spot in camera angles designed to give inmates privacy while showering.

How much surveillance is too much? How much is not enough? And what about the whole boy-girl thing?

Indeed, some jail surveillance policies and practices have been scrutinized by civil rights advocates. Some states, such as Florida where Beiber’s drunken potty break took place, have statutes governing the limits of video surveillance. All states face potential constitutional challenges to recording in ways that risk violating citizens’ reasonable expectations of privacy.

And, yes, when male jail officials are filming female detainees, things get harder. No pun intended.

In Washington, Seattle lawyer James Egan has spent several years pursuing remedies for his clients, women who claim they were victimized by officials at the Pullyup City Jail. The women claim that cameras recorded them using the toilet and removing clothing, including bras and panties. Allegedly, jail officials targeted young, attractive women for particularly thorough video coverage.

More Cameras

Will more video surveillance in jails resolve allegations of official misconduct like in Sandra Bland’s case?

Not as much as fair minded observers might hope. Bland’s case hints at one reason why. The most crucial missing element is not equipment. It is credibility. Police credibility. Or lack thereof.

We can’t accept uncritically any amount of video released as part of a later criminal investigation when that video has been in the sole custody of the people being investigated. Any officials willing to abuse or kill someone in their custody is an official who would happily doctor surveillance images to cover it up. They might lose footage. They might edit. Hell, they might simply follow in the steps of countless vandals before them and toss a towel over the camera before proceeding with their crime.

Who Watches Whom?

Perhaps the fix lies with assigning the job of jailhouse surveillance to an outside entity, not leaving it in the hands of law enforcement.

Of course, the public would then need to be on guard for inter-agency corruption, taking care to avoid arrangements where the folks responsible for jail oversight might improperly benefit from siding with police in investigations.

So, the public may need to ask not only, “Who watches the watchmen?” The public might also need to start asking, “Who watches the watchmen who are watching the other watchmen?”

Like it or not, that’s the rub of accountability. It’s turtles all the way down. But I suspect that Sandra Bland would have preferred the infinite regress of oversight than the questionable video footage provided by the Waller County Sheriff’s Office.

Concerned members of the public should ask questions about greater video surveillance in jails, for the sake of citizens like Sandra Bland and the sake of police officers and jail officials who might be improperly accused of wrongdoing. But the public can’t overlook the civil rights and accountability quandaries. Before we clamor for more jailhouse cameras, we had better be careful what we wish for.

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