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We’ve been watching videos of police shootings for years. It’s time they meant something.

Serving justice means using video footage for accountability. Without that, it’s just voyeurism.

A man watches the video posted to Lavish Reynolds' Facebook page after the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN in July 2016.
A man watches the video posted to Lavish Reynolds' Facebook page after the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN in July 2016.
STF/AFP via Getty

It’s difficult to overstate this: White America has gotten so much more aware of, and more outraged by, police shootings of black American men now that they can be caught on video.

Video recordings can’t totally erase the implicit bias that often leads people (especially white people) to fear black people and trust police. But they’re often a reality check: an improvement on the faux even-handed “he said/she said” that allow people’s preexisting biases to determine their interpretations of what actually happened when a person of color is reportedly harassed, beaten, or shot by a police officer.

Taping — or watching — a recording is by no means enough.

Video cameras are a tool, a piece of equipment. Like any equipment, they serve different functions depending on whether they’re being used by police, witnesses, or third parties — and depending on how they are used.

As a tool for raising awareness of police shootings among white Americans, video recording is pretty well established. As a tool for evidence — for accountability — it really isn’t. And if it’s just doing the former, can anyone really claim it’s doing good?

Alton Sterling’s death proves you can’t trust the police to record themselves

Plenty of people, including the family of Michael Brown, have called for all police to adopt body cameras as a solution to unjustified shootings. In the two years since Brown’s death, that’s been the most common reform for police to implement. The federal government has offered grants to buy 50,000 body cameras for departments that can’t afford them. Some body camera vendors are offering batches of cameras to departments to test for free.

Currently, 100 of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Police Department’s 400 officers have been wearing body cameras since October 2015. Two of those officers approached Alton Sterling on Tuesday; one of them killed him. But according to the Baton Rouge police chief, both of the officers’ body cameras fell off at some point during the officers’ “altercation” with Sterling — and therefore didn’t record the shooting.

It’s possible they really did fall off; the Baton Rouge Police Department is reportedly swapping out its current body cameras for a new model because of exactly this problem. But it’s all too frequent that just when body camera footage is most needed, it’s not available — through mechanical error, police misconduct, or both.

police body camera

During a six-month test run in 2015, Denver police only had their cameras turned on one out of every four times they reported using force against civilians; punches, strikes with police batons, and pepper spray went unrecorded. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, an officer with a history of refusing to turn on his camera shot a civilian and then claimed the camera came “unplugged. Officers from San Diego, California, to Fountain, Colorado, have shot and killed people while their cameras were turned off.

Sterling’s death did end up getting recorded — but not by police. Local activist Arthur Reed shot a cellphone video of the killing. He waited to release it to the public until he saw how the police department responded to Sterling’s death, but he kept the footage just in case. As it turns out, he was justified. The police couldn’t be trusted to record themselves.

Facebook isn’t a perfect repository for disturbing but important videos

Diamond Reynolds didn’t wait. When her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on Wednesday night, she started streaming to Facebook Live. For an hour, it dominated social media; then Facebook stopped displaying the video. After another hour, it was restored.

Facebook claims the removal of the video was a “technical glitch.” Again, that’s possible — though it’s hardly reassuring that a video that could be important to a future criminal investigation might be so easily lost. It’s also possible, however, that what Facebook is describing as a “glitch” was actually the result of a request to take down the video.

In the worst cases, police officers themselves have tried to suppress or tamper with video evidence: They order witnesses to delete their recordings or (as appears to have happened after the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago) ask to see security footage and then wipe it clean.

Facebook probably wouldn’t take down a video just because police asked it to — but it’s not like Facebook is dedicated to preserving user content at all costs. It’s still figuring out how to balance user rights with public safety. More importantly, it’s still figuring out how to treat videos that are both newsworthy and disturbing.

What if Reynolds’s video was reported by large numbers of viewers who were offended by the sight of a dying man in their Facebook feeds? What if that happens to a similar video in future? What would Facebook (or YouTube, or Snapchat, for that matter) do? What should it do?

Until they’re used as evidence, videos of black death are just voyeurism

It might seem like this is not a hard question. Diamond Reynolds and Arthur Reed were doing important, courageous things: documenting apparent misconduct in the face of trauma. Members of the public ought to confront the brutal reality of American policing. We ought not to be allowed to hide it from sight.

But this has been going on for years. Millions of Americans have already seen videos in which black men are killed by police to whom they did not pose an apparent threat. There’s a point when “consciousness raising” loses its utility as an argument.

When the only people watching a police shooting video are people who already knew something like that could happen, what does watching the video actually do for them?

It is not always an act of witness to watch someone else die. If you’re a white American — someone with the good fortune to feel outrage that this is happening to someone else, not fear that you might be next — and your outrage settles into placid opposition to other white Americans you imagine are still in denial, that is not witness; it is spectacle. If you’re a black American forced over and over again to witness the killing of another black American, that is not witness; it is trauma.

You are killing us protesters

If video recording of a police shooting is actually going to be a tool for accountability — a tool that is used to prevent more police shootings in the future — then it has to be part of the process by which that particular shooting is investigated and addressed. It has to be used as evidence: in internal police department investigations, local and federal criminal investigations, criminal and civil trials, legislative debates over policing laws.

That means there have to be rules and guidelines for how that evidence is used and who gets to have it. The American Civil Liberties Union has done some analysis, but much more needs to be done. Many cities are trying to work out these rules on their own; the federal government, too, is trying to figure out best practices.

But the imperative to record has a lot more momentum than the discussion about how recording is used. And there are so, so many questions to answer before we can truly know what the footage is for:

  • When should police officers have to turn their cameras on? When should they have to turn them off? What happens to an officer who doesn’t turn on his camera when he ought to?
  • How long is body camera footage kept? When is it kept? Who keeps it? Does the officer get to watch it if he’s accused of a crime? When do his managers or internal affairs investigators get to watch it? How about the public?
  • How much weight is body camera footage given in criminal or civil trials? What about a witness’s cellphone footage? Who interprets what’s going on when the footage is unclear?
  • When do Facebook and other platforms have to turn video over to the police? When do they have to take video down? When does the public get to see security footage? When do police?

These are intricate, technical, and frankly boring questions. They are also not more difficult than the questions of fixing American policing, structural racism, implicit bias. And until they're answered, the act of watching a video recording of another black death will not yet be witness instead of voyeurism.

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