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From Ray Rice to Ferguson, video evidence makes the public take abuse seriously

When there's a video camera around, it's harder for police to get away with abuse.
When there's a video camera around, it's harder for police to get away with abuse.
Mark Sherborne

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Thursday that the league will start taking a hard line on domestic violence: first-time offenders will be suspended six games (more than a third of a season), while second-time offenders will be banned from pro football for life. There's one domestic violence incident, in particular, that spurred the new policy: in February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer (now his wife Janay Rice) at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. The casino's surveillance cameras show Rice dragging Palmer out of a casino elevator, apparently unconscious, after the incident.

Rice is far from the first NFL player accused of violence against women. To name two: Larry Johnson was arrested three times for assaults against women during his seven seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs — including a 2003 incident where he waved a gun at his girlfriend. (The Chiefs never suspended him for any of them.) In 2008, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, then with the Cincinnati Bengals, knocked a woman unconscious when she tried to break up a fight between him and a neighbor.

But the outcry over Rice's case was much more heated and sustained than it had been in the past. And when the NFL announced that Rice would be suspended for just two games, it didn't reassure the public — it just inflamed the controversy even more. Why? Because people had seen, with their own eyes, a video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator.

This "seeing is believing" approach to incidents of abuse happens all the time. After a bystander with a cell phone recorded police choking New Yorker Eric Garner to death in July, it revived a conversation about police brutality. And one of the reasons that the conversation has gained steam over the last few weeks is because, after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, reporters and citizen journalists were on hand to record protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aggressive, militarized police response to the protesters.

Americans seem more likely to take abuse to heart, and get outraged about it, when there's documentary evidence. Without documentation, the victim's and aggressor's accounts become a "he said, she said" — and we know from media studies that people are more likely to believe accounts that confirm their prejudices. If people tend to side with the person they already know, like or trust — the police officer or the star player — video evidence becomes one of the only things that can break that impasse.

How video breaks through the "he said, she said" cycle

There's a long history of abusive cops being caught on video and provoking public backlash. Rodney King's beating at the hands of police became a flashpoint in 1991 because it was caught on tape. When the officers who assaulted King were acquitted, people felt the court's judgment just didn't match the evidence they'd seen with their own eyes. (My colleague Tim Lee has compiled other examples of times that videotapes have helped to curb police abuse.)

Attorney Walter Katz, who works with police departments on use-of-force cases, said: "Experience has shown that it requires overwhelming evidence to disprove an officer's version of events. That's why it's often when video evidence emerges to disprove an officer's version of events that it leads to either criminal charges or some kind of consequence like being fired. It's the strong tendency of law enforcement that, if the officer provides version A, and civilian witnesses who may have been acquainted with the deceased provide version B, version A will be assumed to be the truth."

In the case of Ferguson, it shouldn't have been that cops had military-style gear. It's been widely reported that local police departments have been receiving tanks, guns, and other equipment from the military (and other federal grant sources). But police say their military equipment only gets used when necessary — when citizens are posing a threat. Without the documentation from Ferguson, the press and the public would likely believe them.  Likewise, in a domestic violence incident happens, a video can provide some objective evidence. Without video, it's certainly convenient for NFL fans to decide that Rice could never really beat his fiancee unconscious.

It's not that people don't believe that domestic violence or police abuse are bad things in theory. It's just that, without seeing it with their own eyes, they tend to assume that whatever's happening in practice can't really be that bad. When there's documentation, people seem much more willing to get angry about it.

al jazeera ferguson

An Al Jazeera film crew flees a tear-gas attack from police in Ferguson, MO. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

The people doing the recording have the power — for better or worse

This means that the people doing the recording have a ton of power — and a ton of responsibility. They are the difference between a public outcry and silence. (For another example, think of what happened to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling earlier this year — his discriminatory landlord practices had some NBA pundits calling for his head years before he got fired, but it took a recording of a conversation with his girlfriend for his racist attitudes to enrage the public.)

That's why civil liberties groups are putting so much effort into training citizens in how to record the police. It's also why groups are fighting to put cameras on police cruisers and officers' uniforms. In both of these cases, the effort isn't just about getting police recorded, but about making sure that footage can't be tampered with or destroyed. Activists are working on ways for citizen journalists to automatically upload videos before a police officer can force the citizen to erase them. And policymakers are still trying to figure out how to keep officer and dashboard cameras tamper-proof — so that they don't mysteriously stop working right before police start harassing someone.

Ultimately, says criminologist Thomas Nolan, it's going to be the threat of being recorded that keeps police in line. "Especially in the age of cameras, people are going to question you, people are going to record you, you're going to be on the Internet. I don't think that there's enough of that being instilled in police officers. They're getting it, but they're getting it slowly. What you do is going to be that much more difficult, because it's going to be pulled apart."

But the Ray Rice video wasn't the work of a citizen journalist — it was the work of a Revel Casino employee who leaked the video to TMZ. If the employee had decided it wasn't his job to leak the video — or if he'd deliberately chosen not to put Rice under public pressure — the NFL might never have changed its policies, because the public and the sports media wouldn't have been so outraged over Rice's case. With abuse cases so often hinging on "he said/she said," it's left to chance whether people will see enough evidence to make them care.