The Boston Police Department responded swiftly and admirably to a white police sergeant’s hotheaded run-in with a black civilian in Roxbury last week, transforming what could have been an embittering episode of police intimidation into a reassuring demonstration of police accountability.
The incident involved an increasingly common scenario: a bystander exercising the lawful right to videotape a police officer’s public actions. In the Roxbury case, officers had responded to a 911 report of two boys playing with a gun, which turned out to be a realistic-looking replica. From across the street, “Brother Lawrence” Dugan filmed the encounter — and Sergeant Henry Staines, bristling at being recorded, strode over to confront the 61-year-old man. “I’m not giving you my permission to film me,” he warned, then brandished the facsimile firearm menacingly and shoved it at Dugan’s camera.
In the shadow of Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and other cities that have seen deadly encounters between urban police and the neighborhoods they patrol, Staines’s outburst — the video of which was posted on the Internet — could have triggered a violent eruption. Instead, Police Commissioner William Evans apologized on behalf of the department as soon as he learned of the video. They issued a reminder to every Boston cop that under the Constitution, citizens can legally film police officers in public. Then he and Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross saw to it that Staines openly and unreservedly apologized to Dugan in a face-to-face meeting at Boston NAACP headquarters Friday morning.
“I’m humiliated and embarrassed,” Staines told Dugan. “I let my city down, my department down, I let myself down, but more than anything else, I let Brother Lawrence down and for that I’m truly sorry and I take full responsibility.”
In a famous passage, the Roman writer Juvenal asked “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — “Who will watch the watchmen?” In the age of smartphones and viral videos, the answer is: anyone who wants to. Boston Police authorities have just underscored that message, in the process defusing tension that might have continued to smolder — a display of responsibility and respect at a time that police agencies everywhere could learn from.
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