Segment from Tools of the Trade

Cops on Camera

Madison, Ala., Police Chief Larry Muncey considers the pros and cons of video technology in law enforcement, and the philosophy of community policing.

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ED AYERS: We’re going to end today with a workplace tool of sorts that’s been the news lately. Across the country this past year, we’ve been hearing about the deaths and injuries of unarmed suspects at the hands of local police. And those cases have a lot of people asking whether more video surveillance could improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

For Larry Muncie, the chief of police in Madison, Alabama, the question is more than academic. In February, footage from one of his patrol cars showed officers questioning a 57-year-old man from India, who, it turned out, had been out for a morning walk. In what seemed like an instant, one of the officers slammed Sureshbhai Patel to the ground, resulting in injuries that left him partially paralyzed. Chief Muncie’s department recommended assault charges against the officer, Eric Parker, who has also been indicted under federal civil rights laws.

But the other reason we wanted to talk to Chief Muncie is that a few months before that incident, the International Association of Police Chiefs gave his department its highest award for community policing, a fact that was largely overlooked when the video of Officer Parker went viral. I began our conversation by asking Chief Muncie what a patrolman’s technology looked like when he first walked the beat.

LARRY MUNCIE: Starting back in the dark ages when I started, when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, when you started as a police officer, you were issued a set of handcuffs and a weapon and maybe a billy club, a nightstick, or even some older than I am, the old night come-alongs or the saps if you remember those.

ED AYERS: No, I don’t know what that would be.

LARRY MUNCIE: Those were back probably in the early ’60s, maybe late ’50s, they issued what were called come-alongs. And they were just basically a little lead weight that was covered in leather, and the officers would carry them in their back pocket. And they were actually trained to use those to hit suspects in the head that were resisting.

They called them come-alongs, convoys, saps, things of that nature– slapjacks. But they were very primitive, very primitive. And of course, after they realized that they were really injuring people significantly, they stopped using them.

ED AYERS: And what would an officer be handed today? What would the outfit of equipment be like today?

LARRY MUNCIE: Today when the officer goes on– they’ll spend– matter of fact, I was pulling the figures today. They’ll spend close to $20,000 putting equipment on an officer. That’s going to include a bulletproof vest, which is made of Kevlar Spectra.

And then you’re going to have the leather gear, which is going to consist of handcuffs, maybe an OC spray. It’s going to consist of a Taser, and then of course a duty weapon. Then you have a walkie-talkie, and usually a collapsible steel baton.

ED AYERS: So with all this equipment that’s going on, what do you think about the calls for body cameras or dashboard video? With the national spotlight on police abuse and protest, does that strike you as sort of an extension of all the equipment that officers carry, or is this a real game-changer in one direction or another?

LARRY MUNCIE: No, it’s a natural progression. The majority of the departments across the nation are already using the in-car cameras and have been using the in-car cameras for 15 years. They’re a great tool. In my opinion, the in-car cameras are actually better than the body cams that they have out now.

ED AYERS: So what would be the advantages and disadvantages of a body camera, say?

LARRY MUNCIE: A significant issue with the body cameras is that they’re dependent on somebody turning them on and off. So something happens really, really quick, the first action of that officer has to be to turn the camera on or reach for his weapon. Which do you think that’s going to be?

They’re going to go for the weapon or they’re going to go for that tool that they need. It’s not going to be to turn that camera on. Now conversely, if you go to the cars, as soon as you hit the blue lights in most patrol cars, cameras come on.

ED AYERS: Oh, I see.

LARRY MUNCIE: And the best part about the car cameras is they give you that perspective from a third party. So you’re able to look and see the officer’s full actions, the suspect’s full actions. Whereas the body cameras, usually it’s so close and personal the only thing you see is movement. But it’s hard to determine exactly what that movement is. So both are good, but neither one is going to replace the other. They’re going to have to be worked together.

ED AYERS: So did the incident in which your officer was involved suggest to you that video technology is an important way to stop police abuse?

LARRY MUNCIE: In regards to the Mr. Patel incident?


LARRY MUNCIE: The officer for Mr. Patel’s case, Eric Parker, his actions were absolutely inexcusable. That’s why we made the recommendations that we did. If we would not have had that video, that would’ve been much, much more difficult to determine exactly what happened. That video allows you to analyze it over and over again and make sure that everything, the policies and procedures, state laws, were followed, and if not, to take action. So to answer your question, cameras absolutely help. And the more cameras, the better.

ED AYERS: So as we have all these different forms of footage, Chief Muncie, coming from the different body cameras and the car cameras, why do we need all of that? Does it imply a suspicion of the police, or does it have some other function?

LARRY MUNCIE: It does. When you put these cameras on the officers, we require our supervisors to look at that footage every week, pick different officers at random. And they look at the stops that they’re going on. So what that gives them is a bird’s eye view of how those officers are conducting themselves when the supervisors aren’t around.

And what they’re looking for is not necessarily something that they’ve done wrong, but learning opportunities. Maybe they should’ve approach a car differently. Maybe they should have spoken more professionally.

Maybe they should have– fill in the blank. Without that camera, without that technology, that’s all opportunities that are lost, because you simply cannot have a supervisor that rides with an officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

ED AYERS: So we’ve been talking about technology. And really, it’s kind of proliferation. And you’ve made a compelling case for all the reasons that we have every new addition to the outfit of the police has to go out into the world with. But there’s another practice that seems to be in ascendancy of community policing that is really emphasizing the role of the police in the place where they work as partners. So is community policing itself a kind of technology?

LARRY MUNCIE: No, I think it’s more relationships. We just simply can’t go out and communicate with the individuals that we personally know and think like us. We have to communicate with all facets. Law enforcement is the most noble profession, in my mind, in the world. With a comes a lot of responsibility. You have the authority to take someone’s property, their freedom, and their life.

And with that, we must be held to a higher standard by our diverse community that we work for. And the only way to do that and to know what that expectations of your community is to be involved with them, and to have those relationships. And that may be simply having school resource officers in your schools, giving kids role models, being at community events, having your officers out on bikes in the parks, having your officers walking through the neighborhoods, having your officers with the mindset of, we are problem-solvers first– problem-solvers first.

So whatever the issue is, we want to try to help fix that. But we are still law enforcement, and we still protect. And we still stop people from violating other people.

ED AYERS: Chief Muncie, thanks so much for helping us understand this complicated landscape.

LARRY MUNCIE: Well, sir, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

ED AYERS: That was chief Larry Muncie of the Madison, Alabama police department.


PETER ONUF: Time for us to clock out. But we’ll be waiting for you online. Drop in at our website. We’d be eager to hear your thoughts on the show, as well as the shows we have in the works. One considers the long American tradition of staking claims to rights. We’d be interested in hearing any stories you have about times when your rights have come into conflict with other people’s rights.

We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


BRIAN BALOGH: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED AYERS: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History, Emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

BRIAN BALOGH: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.