too good to be true

Madelyne Toogood: Caught on Tape

(The camera at Kohl's that recorded Madelyne Toogood.)

Friday the 13th of September 2002 was a very slow day for "breaking news." There had been no terrorist attacks on the anniversary of September 11th, no new developments in the "war on terrorism," nothing. And so the ever-hungry round-the-clock cable news channels (CNN, Fox, MSNBC and MSNBC) were desperate for something -- anything -- to "cover." No doubt some other "news story" would have done the job, but this one was absolutely perfect, literally too good to be true.

In the parking lot of a Kohl's department store in Mishawaka, Indiana -- in other words, in the middle of fucking nowhere -- a young woman was videotaped by store security guards as she forcefully and repeatedly slapped her 4-year-old daughter in the head. This "sustained disciplinary action" (or blatant instance of child abuse) had been caught on tape because security guards had decided to track this woman after she'd left the store and went to her car because she'd become angry and loud when she was unable to return some items.

On any other day, the "play" of such an unfortunate but very banal story would have been limited to the local newspapers and TV stations. But on this particular day, the play knew no limits and the drama fed on itself. The videotape very quickly became the heart of a "breaking" news story, one that every news outlet in the country wanted to a piece of. You just couldn't avoid it on the TV: the videotape was played over and over again, every few minutes, for the rest of the day, and for the next few days, as well.

Surely the facts that the videotape was of good quality and that it captured a spectacular instance of parental child abuse contributed to its sudden and immense "popularity." But it is senseless to deny that it was the accident of Madelyne Toogood's name that turned this sad little incident into a national scandal. Who could resist the irony? Very few, apparently. For here, it seemed, was a perfect news story, one in which everything was crystal clear and beyond debate: Madelyne Toogood and the "Irish Travellers," the group to which she belonged, were bad; and the security guards and the surveillance cameras that they used to track her were good. There could be no objections to these judgments; only an apologist for child abuse would dare defend Madelyne Toogood or condemn the security guards who videotaped her. Best of all, this story had a "happy" ending: the child, we were told, would soon be "rescued" from her abusive mother and put into foster care, where she'd finally be "safe."

Troubling questions remain. It is understandable that Kohl's security guards videotaped Toogood in the first place, just as it is understandable that they turned over their surveillance tape to the Mishawaka Police Department (MPD). But it is far from clear why the MPD gave copies of this tape to the national news media. It's true that Toogood was "on the run," and her identity wasn't yet known, but the MPD could very well have put aside this footage, asked to see the tapes that were recorded when Toogood was inside the store (which is filled with cameras), grabbed a picture that showed her face, and then circulated this picture to the media in the hopes that people would recognize her and alert the police, or that Toogood would see her picture on TV and would turn herself in. But, instead of doing this, the MPD immediately circulated the highly prejudicial videotape of Toogood striking her child.

This decision makes no sense, precisely because the videotape never shows Toogood's face and so is totally useless from the stand-point of identifying her. (Note as well that the presence of dozens of surveillance cameras at Kohl's did absolutely nothing either to deter or prevent Toogood from hitting her child.) And yet the news media consistently drew the obviously incorrect conclusion from "the Toogood Affair" that it proved the usefulness of video surveillance, when it in fact did the opposite!

The release of the predjudicial videotape deprived Madelyne Toogood of her right to a fair trial in a court of law. She was forced to plead guilty after she turned herself in, because she knew that the jury pool had been tainted by the play the videotape had received; she'd already been convicted -- that is, humiliated -- in the extra-judicial "court" of public opinion. This is not how things should be handled, no, not at all. Think of the child, who was doubly victimized, first by her mother, then by the police and the mass media. From now on, she'll be known as the girl whose "bad" Mommy was videotaped beating her in a Kohl's parking lot. She'll have to change her name.

-- Friday the 13th of December 2002.

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998