Three days after police officer Michael Slager killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, video of the fatal shooting surfaced.
That video, filmed by a bystander, told a very different story than the one Slager told investigators after the shooting. It did not show Scott trying to grab Slager's Taser, as Slager alleged. Instead, the shocking footage showed Slager shooting a fleeing Scott in the back, then picking up something — possibly his Taser — and dropping it next to Scott's body. On Tuesday, Slager was charged with murder.
Without the video, it would have been Slager's word against, well, no one's. From Eric Garner's 2014 death in Staten Island to the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland to the infamous Rodney King beating in Los Angeles more than two decades ago, video — often shot by bystanders — has been an integral check on police in use-of-force cases. And even if the film does not lead to an indictment, as was the case with Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Garner, the videos are an important way to level what is often a one-sided account from law enforcement.
The ubiquity of camera phones means more and more incidents like this will be filmed — an act that is completely legal, despite widespread reports of police ordering bystanders to stop filming them. This raises the question of how to best protect both the evidence and the well-being of the videographer.
So say you're the person wielding the iPhone when the police shoot a man in the back. Then what? Once the smoke clears, what should you do? Here's what Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, has to say.
Saving the file is the first step
"If I had something really hot, and I was worried it would be suppressed somehow, I would back it up as soon as possible. That might mean sending it somewhere in the cloud or to a trusted third party, or making a backup at home."
Remember that the name of the videographer will be in the news — and forever connected to the story
Amateur videographers should know that filming a video that puts police officers in a harsh light might also put the spotlight on them.
"Ramsey Orta [who filmed Eric's Garner's death in New York] is alleging that the police harassed his family, shone lights in his house at night, and targeted him for arrest, and now he's afraid he's being poisoned [in Rikers Island]," said Stanley. Orta was indicted on weapons charges a few weeks after shooting the video.
It's important to take a moment to consider when and how to release the video. Feidin Santana, the man who filmed Walter Scott's death in South Carolina, took three days before he gave the film to the family and considered keeping his identity a secret.
"At some point I thought about staying anonymous, and don't show my face, don't talk about it," Santana told CNN. "But ... if I wouldn't show my face, everybody over there knows, including the police, who I am."
While Santana seemed to imply that staying anonymous was not the safest bet for him, there are options for people who want to keep their names hidden. "The question is," said Stanley, "do you want to remain anonymous? You can post the video to various anonymous forums, but in theory your IP address can be traced by law enforcement. If you really want to be paranoid, you can post to an anonymous secure drop site. You can also call a reporter. The reporter may or may not decide that your video is newsworthy, of course, but on the other hand, most reporters will go to prison rather than reveal the name of an anonymous informant."
Who gets the footage?
Santana said he originally went to the station, was told to wait, and then left. He finally gave the film to Scott's family. Posting the video online is an option, Stanley said, and so is giving it to the family, who are presumably represented by lawyers. The police? Not so much. "If the police are the people you have on tape doing wrongdoing, you should go to a reporter or post it online," Stanley said.
"One advantage of YouTube is that even if a reporter for some reason — maybe just bad judgment — isn't interested or doesn't think your video is significant, it can still be judged by a larger community and have a chance of going viral there, or at least reaching particular communities. YouTube also gives you a quasi-official time stamp."
And then the chips will fall where they may. "Ultimately," said Stanley, "each person has to decide how brave they want to be."
For good general information for citizen photographers, check out the ACLU's Guide to Photographers' Rights.