By John Li

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner’s life was cut short by New York City police officers Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo. The incident was filmed by a bystander and when the video was leaked, the story garnered national attention for weeks after. In the video, you can see Garner, a 350+ pound asthmatic African-American man, forced to the ground by two officers with Pantaleo’s arm around his neck in what has been widely regarded as an illegal chokehold. The viewer can hear Garner repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” Seconds later, he lay motionless on the ground.

Warning: Video contains disturbing content

A later autopsy released from the New York City Medical Examiner’s office ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide citing the cause of death as the chokehold and the compression of Garner’s chest by the police officers. With the grand jury trial beginning in Garner’s case in mid-October, questions have arisen about whether or not the video captured by citizen witnesses will and should be used in court. This debate highlights many of the strengths and limitations of video as evidence.

Video and Police Brutality

While the ability to film has been around for decades, the problem of police brutality has been around for much longer. WITNESS was founded 22 years ago following the case of Rodney King, a construction worker who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police after a car chase. The altercation was filmed by a witness and national outrage ensued once the video was shared with the media.

In the United States it is legal under the protection of the First Amendment to film law enforcement officers, as long as the civilian stays out of the way and does not interfere with police proceedings. With camera technology becoming inexpensive and relatively ubiquitous in the form of cellphones, more instances of police violence have been recorded and shared widely in recent years. Another recent incident that received wide media attention in the United States was the case of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA who was shot by police at close range (the topic of the 2012 film Fruitvale Station).

In the era of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, videos and news of police brutality travel faster and reach more people than ever before. This trend has placed attention on the relationship between social media, public perception, and the judicial system. As we have seen in a number of these high profile cases, the combination of video and increased public attention often does not equal particular legal outcomes or set ramifications for police officers.

For example, in the case of Oscar Grant, prosecutors sought murder charges for officer Johannes Mesherle but in the end the officer received a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter and served only minimal time on his sentence. Many people expected a harsher sentence because they believed that the video of Grant’s death contained sufficient “evidence” of the officer’s overreaction due to his use of a gun rather than a less fatal method to control or detain Grant.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Video

A police officer attempts to restrain a protestor during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2013. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A police officer attempts to restrain a protestor during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2013. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Video can be a critical part of an investigation because it can be an unaltered snapshot of the events–but that’s exactly what it is: a snapshot.  Events before and after the video, the history of the victim or perpetrators, and the context of the situation are often not fully known. Speculation surrounding these details or the emergence of information that presents a different narrative to the events shown in the video can undermine a piece of video’s evidentiary value.

In the case of Eric Garner, these potential questions include: Did Garner resist arrest before the camera started rolling? Did the tactic used by the officers constitute an illegal chokehold?  Was the level of police force proportionate to the threat that Garner posed?

In addition, recent studies have shown that “ambiguous video evidence may actually reinforce people’s biases.” For example, if someone believes that the police were at fault during a particular incident, they will watch police behavior more closely in the video and re-affirm their original conclusion. On the flip side, if a viewer sides with the police, they will likely find the civilian to be in the wrong. Thus, we know that if the course of events shown in a video is unclear, it will have limited value in terms of justice and accountability.

The Future of Video and Police Violence

So, what will the relationship between police violence and video look like in the future? The prevalence of video technology is likely to continue to increase. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 there has been substantial conversation about requiring officers to wear a camera when on duty. A recent White House petition for this requirement reached 100,000 signatures in less than a week. While this likely will not end police brutality, some activists are cautiously optimistic that more video may achieve a shift in the culture and policies of police departments due to the possibility that their actions may be recorded and closely scrutinized.

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk via Flickr.
Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

In addition, we know that activists and citizen witnesses can do more to make sure that their video has evidentiary value. In WITNESS’s forthcoming guide on video as evidence, we demonstrate techniques on how to film for evidence and store and protect your media for potential future use in a court of law. The full guide will be released in 2015. Until then, stay tuned to the blog for sneak peeks.

If you are interested in learning more, WITNESS also has a number of resources on how to document human rights abuse and preserve your footage for justice and accountability through archiving.

John Li interned with WITNESS’ External Relations department this summer. He is a third year student at UCLA where he is double majoring in Economics and Psychology.

Sarah Kerr contributed reporting and editing to the article.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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