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6 times videos have helped hold police accountable

A police officer pepper sprays students at the University of California, Davis.
A police officer pepper sprays students at the University of California, Davis.

When Eric Garner died last week after being put in a chokehold by a New York cop, it sparked a national conversation about the use of force by police officers.

Public interest in the incident was enhanced because the incident was captured on video. The spread of consumer video cameras over the last quarter century has made this kind of documentation increasingly common. Today, it's easier than ever for ordinary citizens to record how police officers interact with the public.

Below are six notable cases of alleged police misconduct caught on video. Five videos were taken by bystanders at the scene. The sixth came from surveillance cameras inside a police station. In all cases, the graphic images in the videos helped to boost public interest and inform the debate.

These videos underscore the importance of recent court rulings that Americans have a First Amendment right to record the actions of police in public places (though some cops have been known to interfere with people exercising this right). Ubiquitous surveillance of the actions of police officers doesn't just help us to catch and discipline bad cops. It can also protect good cops against false or inflated accusations of misconduct.

1991: Police beat Rodney King in Los Angeles

In 1991, Los Angeles police officers stopped 25-year-old Rodney King after a high-speed car chase. When he refused to cooperate with the arresting officers, he was forced to the ground and beaten by several officers.

The incident was captured using the relatively new technology of home video recorders, sparking a nationwide debate about police brutality. King's assailants were prosecuted. Their acquittal helped to spark the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.

A second, federal prosecution under civil rights laws led to the conviction of two of the officers, while two others were acquitted for a second time.

2002: Police beat 16-year-old Donovan Jackson in Inglewood, CA

In 2002, a group of police officers in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood beat 16-year-old Donovan Jackson. The incident was caught on video tape, and led to assault charges against one of the officers. The charges were dropped after two hung juries.

2008: Police dump quadriplegic Brian Sterner out of his wheelchair in Hillsborough County, FL

In 2008, Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic, was arrested based on an outstanding warrant for a traffic-related offense. While Sterner was in police custody, a sheriff's deputy grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and pitched him forward onto the ground. He was then frisked as he lay on the floor. The incident was captured by a surveillance camera mounted inside the police station.

"I am personally embarrassed and shocked by the horrific treatment Mr. Sterner received," Sheriff David Gee said afterwards. The incident prompted a national conversation about the treatment of suspects — especially disabled ones — taken into police custody.

2009: Police officer fatally shoots Oscar Grant in a Bay Area subway station

On New Year's day 2009, police officers associated with Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant at a BART station. The shooting occurred while Grant was face-down on the subway platform, surrounded by several officers.

The video, caught on camera phone by a bystander, shows the shooter, Johannes Mehserle, reacting with shock when he realizes he had just killed Grant. A jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, but not the stronger charge of second-degree murder. He served about a year in prison.

2011: Police spray pepper spray in protestors' faces at the University of California, Davis

In 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a group of protestors camped out on the campus of the University of California, Davis. When protestors refused to budge, the police responded by blasting pepper spray directly in the faces of protestors who were seated on the ground with their arms locked.

The confrontation was captured on video and "pepper spraying cop" became an internet meme. Photoshopped images on the Pepper Spraying Cop Tumblr show the officer blasting pepper spray into the faces of Sleeping Beauty, Rosa Parks, George Washington, the Beatles, and other iconic figures, a critique of what critics saw as the amoral cruelty of the pepper spraying cops.

2014: Eric Garner dies after being choked by police in New York

The police suspected Eric Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes. When Garner refused to cooperate with the New York police officers, several police officers rushed Garner and wrestled him to the ground.

A video captured by a bystander shows that one cop put Garner in a chokehold. With the officer's arm around his neck, Garner can be heard repeatedly saying "I can't breathe." He died a few minutes later.

In response to Garner's death, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton ordered a "sweeping review of training and tactics."