The “Watchmen” Hate to be Watched

Erie, Pennsylvania police Patrolman James Cousins II was off-duty and well into his cups the night of April 6 as he regaled bar patrons with tales of his on-the-job exploits.

In barely literate, profanity-studded language that might have struck Samuel L. Jackson as excessive, the 40-year-old Cousins described how he was one of several officers who arrived at the scene of the March 28 shooting death of a man named Rondale Jennings, Jr. What made his account distinctive was the undisguised disdain he displayed for the victim, and his open mockery of the grief exhibited by the victim’s mother.

Cousins also bragged about using his cell phone to capture personal photos of the deceased. To top things off, his boozy monologue included a description of an incident in which he beat and then used his taser on an individual whose only offense was to be publicly distraught following a break-up with his girlfriend.

(The language in the following video is exceptionally offensive.)

Cousins, who had rendered himself a gibbering fool through over-consumption of alcohol, apparently forgot that other people carry cell phones as well.

In his audience that evening at the Tree Top Bar was Girard native Jeremy Orr, who used his cell phone to capture most of Cousins’ obscene monologue. Orr uploaded the resulting video clip to YouTube shortly thereafter and then flew to Australia, where he presently lives with his family.

Within hours of the video being posted on YouTube, an internal affairs investigation was underway — not of Cousins’ behavior, but rather of the source of the video itself.

That “investigation” proved to be little more than an attempt to blackmail Orr’s family into removing the clip from the internet, using the threat of a federal “wiretapping” prosecution as leverage.

Accompanied by Patrolman Cousins, Inspector James DeDionisio paid visits to Orr’s mother and younger brother. Orr’s brother, who didn’t disclose his name to the press out of fear of reprisals from police, recalled that Cousins was nearly in tears, explaining that he “could lose my job over this.”

To the credit of the Erie PD and the local prosecutor’s office, the threats made by Cousins and DeDionisio were entirely empty. Cousins has been suspended from the force, and District Attorney Brad Foulk insists, “The thought of charging the person who took the video [with] a wiretap violation is the furthest thing from my mind.”

This isn’t true of officials in other communities. In fact, it’s become relatively commonplace for police and prosecutors to file wiretapping charges against citizens who make audio or video records of their encounters with police.

Criminal charges are also routinely filed against citizens for the supposed offense of taking photographs of police officers performing “official duties” — a context in which the officers have entirely surrendered any expectation of privacy.

The near-ubiquity of cell phones and the blessing of video file-sharing sites offers an encouraging response to Juvenal’s despairing question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The problem, of course, is that the “Watchmen” and their allies in the state’s coercive apparatus may simply criminalize citizen efforts to impose accountability.


2:13 pm on April 21, 2009