Editorials

On cameras and the rising cost of excessive force

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer strikes John Reyes of Carmichael with his flashlight in this image from a video shot by Michael White of Carmichael.
Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer strikes John Reyes of Carmichael with his flashlight in this image from a video shot by Michael White of Carmichael. Michael White

Cameras are revolutionizing police work. Unfortunately, some departments hope closing their eyes will make the revolution go away.

It won’t, and the Sacramento County sheriff should keep that in mind as he deals with this latest round of excessive-force headlines, generated this time by a deputy repeatedly caught on video bludgeoning civilians with his metal, department-issued flashlight.

As reported Sunday by The Sacramento Bee’s Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh, Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer is a decorated-officer-turned-potential-taxpayer-liability, with civil suits pending against him in both federal and superior courts. A homeless man in Carmichael and a car thief doing time in Corcoran State Prison allege that they were severely injured during encounters with Pfeifer.

Not so long ago, those claims would have been little more than the word of two guys with rap sheets against that of a deputy with a Sheriff’s Gold Medal of Valor. But thanks to a bystander’s cellphone in the first case, and a departmental dash cam in the second, Sacramento County can see for itself what kind of police work is being tolerated, and even rewarded, in Sheriff Scott R. Jones’ department.

Pfeifer already has been a human line item for taxpayers at least once, generating a $20,000 county settlement in 2009 for an Antelope tax preparer whom he beat with his flashlight after she’d been hogtied during a sheriff’s response to a loud party.

Now the federal case alone, filed by the driver of a stolen car whom Pfeifer attacked with the metal flashlight through the open car window, is seeking more than $800,000 in damages, and the Carmichael case is just getting started. The sheriff’s response? Pfeifer was made detective after a brief paid leave.

Sheriff’s departments have tended to cling to old ways throughout California. But the age has passed in which the public will look the other way while cops dispense street justice. Today, every cellphone camera is a potential electronic witness and every encounter is potentially public, thanks to social media.

Jones has dragged his feet in outfitting his department with body cams, which have deterred excessive force elsewhere; his excuse is concern about how much footage will be public record. Interestingly, his privacy concerns haven’t been as intense when it comes to surveillance of civilians. But in any case, he’s not doing anyone any favors by pretending his department can continue to work unwitnessed.

Jones should bring on the body cams and wean deputies like Pfeifer from their bad habits or, better yet, manage them out of the department. Short-cutting civil rights is both unethical and costly, both in tax dollars and in public trust.

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