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After Yet Another Police Shooting of a Black Man, Here's What's Next for Video Monitoring

Social media is amplifying the public outrage, allowing videos of these fatal encounters to spread virally.

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A six-minute video showing the fatal police shooting of a black teenager that sent protests fanning across Chicago is just the latest in a long string of deaths by police officers with cameras as the witness.

The video shows the victim, Laquan McDonald, collapsing onto the street after being struck by gunfire and crumpling as at least a dozen more bullets enter his body.

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with that fatal shooting, underscoring how video technology is bringing heightened scrutiny to law enforcement’s use of force against black men and how cameras have become a part of the everyday fabric. Coupled with social media, both people and the police have become accustomed to the idea of a two-way surveillance state.


In the case of McDonald, the video didn’t come from a citizen passerby but from a police dashboard cam, and the video didn’t spread via social media but by court order. Still, the visual evidence is so brazen and stark, it’s become an example of how cameras have become the best (and, in many cases, the only) witness to excessive use of force.

And there will be more cameras. Roughly a third of the nation’s 12,000 police departments have used body cameras in some way — as do around 30 percent of the country’s sheriff’s departments, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It’s one way to ensure that law enforcement captures scenes from the officers’ perspectives, at a time when cameras are seemingly ubiquitous — from smartphones to the security systems at the local convenience store.

Law enforcement officials say the benefits of body-worn cameras and dash cams tend to outweigh potential downsides, because they offer greater accountability and transparency. One study conducted in the city of Rialto, Calif., saw an 88 percent decrease in complaints against officers and 60 percent reduction in force once it began using body cameras.

Police are considering new ways to harness technology, such as drones for use in executing search warrants, according to Wellesley, Mass., Police Chief Terrence Cunningham, who is also president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

That introduces new privacy concerns for law enforcement and communities to address, as they evaluate when and where officers record footage. Some departments give officers the discretion to turn off a camera inside someone’s home, for instance, while interviewing a rape survivor or an abused child.

This desire for enhanced surveillance tools is at the heart of law enforcement’s efforts to urge tech companies like Apple and Google to provide backdoor access to encrypted messages on their services as they pursue terrorists and criminals.

The skeptical view would be that law enforcement only wants to use the technology when it benefits them, as they’d want the discretion to turn off the cameras when they see fit but don’t want tech companies giving their customers the tools to shield their conversations from law enforcement.

When disturbing videos surface of a fatal police encounter, Cunningham said it should be considered one piece of evidence to be weighed in a broader investigation that includes witnesses’ accounts and other evidence gathered at the scene.

“As people start to release some video footage, there is this rush to judgment. Now we’ve seen it all and we understand it all,” Cunningham said. “As long as people understand that’s just one piece of it, that video is going to be helpful to the officer in 90 percent of the cases.”

But even as police officers say video evidence can be helpful to them, some Chicago police officers are being accused of deleting nearly 90 minutes of footage from a security camera at a Burger King located near where McDonald was shot, according to the lawyers for McDonald’s family.

Videos can be undeniably powerful in crystallizing public opinion. Here are a handful of encounters that have charged the debate:

In New York City, haunting footage captured 43-year-old Eric Garner begging for his life.

In September, video captured the fatal shooting of a 28-year-old Delaware man who was confined to a wheelchair after a shooting 10 years earlier left him paralyzed.

Dash cam video captured a portion of the deadly police shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, a black college student and football player who had survived a car accident and breaks into a sprint as a police car arrives.

Mother Jones magazine documents 13 fatal police shootings captured on video over the past year.

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