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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Janison: Cameras shaped political mood in 2014

School speed cameras are shown on Jerusalem Avenue

School speed cameras are shown on Jerusalem Avenue in Uniondale Dec. 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Chris Ware

The camera judges all.

Depending on who takes videos, and how they are used, they can shape the political mood more than any official words. This was the year that proved it.

Notice how a bystander with a cellphone documented Staten Islander Eric Garner's death in New York City's forgotten borough and thus turned "I can't breathe" into a viral slogan against police abuse.

Remember how, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, local authorities -- to the chagrin of some -- released a private security video showing the 17-year-old, shortly before his death, shoving a convenience store manager while allegedly walking off with cigarillos.

And don't be surprised when a political campaign commercial employs video of recent riots, looting and fires in Ferguson to make some point or other.

On Long Island, the official deployment of cheap and abundant digital recordings spawned a video-centric story, too -- but of a different kind. Here we've seen a public backlash against the camera's cold official judgments.

First Suffolk pre-empted its plans for speed cams in school zones. On Monday, the Nassau County Legislature pulled the plug on its own program after an outcry. The counties will thus sacrifice millions of dollars in revenue.

Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said a person's reaction to being dunned by an electronic device differs from that of, say, blowing by an unnoticed patrol car on the corner.

"People have a personal relationship to their cars," Moss said. "The only time they may have privacy is when they're driving. People don't want records of where they're going and who they're going there with."

The big flash point is the money, of course: a fine plus a fee for, say, exceeding the speed limit, sometimes hours after the school on the opposite side of the road has closed for the day.

The camera has judged you, the resulting notice would suggest, but you're welcome to go to court to argue with the hard evidence of a visual image.

Meanwhile, agencies all over the United States are expanding the practice of equipping officers with dashboard and body cams.

Expect those devices to impeach in some cases, exonerate in others.

For exonerations, think of those episodes on the long-running "Cops" show in which the suspect (frequently shirtless) says quite implausibly that he has no idea how all that crack got in the front seat with him.

For impeachments, watch this week's viral video from a Victoria, Texas, police dashboard camera in which an officer headlocked, tased, and handcuffed a 76-year-old auto mechanic trying to explain an expired inspection sticker on a car with dealer plates.

We see the moving images over and over, repeated on television and embedded on websites. Video clips become pointed billboards for a point of view, regardless of whether they show what their sponsors claim.

Grand juries, judges, prosecutors, elected officials and juries still decide whether an action is legal or proper.

But cameras often pass judgment first -- and nobody is immune to their political fallout.

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