Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm, Executive Director of WITNESS.
Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm, Executive Director of WITNESS.

Exactly 24 years ago yesterday, on March 3, 1991, four officers from the L.A.P.D. brutally beat an African-American man named Rodney King. An accidental witness captured this beating on a camcorder from his balcony and the broadcast of his video caused a national outcry. All four officers involved were subsequently acquitted in the criminal case against them. Two of the officers eventually served brief prison sentences after a civil rights case was filed.

Months after I had started as WITNESS’ Executive Director, Oscar Grant, who was celebrating New Year’s Eve 2009 with his friends, was shot dead by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, CA. The incident was filmed from various angles, much of it on cell phones. Last summer, a bystander filmed the choking death of Eric Gardner by police officers on Staten Island, NY who were attempting to arrest him.

This past Saturday, a group of young Brazilian boys gathered in the favela neighborhood Palmerinha, north of Rio de Janeiro. One of them, 15-year old Alan de Souza Lima, filmed his friends with his mobile phone while they told each other jokes. In the video, suddenly, shots are heard, and the phone falls to the ground but continues to record. Lima died on the scene from a bullet to his abdomen. His 19-year old friend, Chaun Jambre Cezario, was hospitalized with gun wounds in his chest. Ten shots were fired in total by the Military Police, who claim that they responded to ‘criminals who were shooting.’ In a move that is all too common in Brazil, the Military Police attempted to frame Cezario by charging him with the illegal possession of a weapon. But Lima’s cellphone video exculpated him as it recorded the fact that the boys had no weapons. In a country known for its rampant impunity, the Brazilian police is now investigating nine officers involved in the incident.

Back in Los Angeles this past Sunday, four L.A.P.D. officers struggled with a homeless man called “Africa” on Skid Row. One (or more) of the officers fatally shot the man, who did not have a weapon. A bystander captured this struggle on his mobile phone, at the same time a security camera in the neighborhood filmed it, and two of the police officers involved recorded the event on their body cams. The L.A. police chief says they are investigating what happened and ‘reviewing all the footage.’

Video and audio experts, the media, police investigators, and the public at large are reviewing the widely distributed footage of Africa’s death. Will the police’s body cameras provide conclusive evidence? Will the police release all the relevant footage from the cameras? If it is determined that charges will be brought, who chooses which footage a jury sees? If so, how will the police footage stack up against the security camera footage and bystanders’ cellphone footage? How will a grand jury be instructed to review the video evidence?

Video still from cell phone footage of police interacting with Oscar Grant and his companions shortly before Grant was shot.

For more than twenty years, videos of police violence have surfaced and an increasing number of videos are being presented to juries and in criminal or civil rights cases. Today, in some cases, there is an immediate groundswell of footage when police violence occurs. One thing is clearer now than it was in the days of the Rodney King beating: in a world with ubiquitous video, these alleged crimes are much harder to sweep under the carpet. Without these videos, it is a police officer’s account against a voiceless person’s (or their surviving family).

But the amount of footage of an incident and the amount of justice served in these cases do not yet correlate. While President Obama is encouraging changes on how we train police and respond after police shootings in the US, a new set of evidentiary ground rules are also needed to ensure that we can better collect and verify bystanders’ videos and take full advantage of the existence of multiple videos of an incident. These videos must be used as helpful tools on behalf of the victims of human rights abuses and to increase accountability for crimes against innocent people.

Without video, we might never have known what happened in the first place. Now it is upon us to ensure that videos can do more. This includes making sure video can better prove a crime or disprove a perpetrator’s false account, that evidentiary footage can be more easily authenticated, and that an accidental witness’ video account, or hundreds of them, can be fairly integrated into the criminal justice system so that video can truly catalyze justice. To make this happen, we not only need to transform the way the criminal justice or civil rights systems absorb and manage thousands of citizen-shot videos, we also must ensure that the right parameters are created around the use of police body cams, and the videos they produce, so that, in the long run, the system can expose the truth and justice can be served where it is badly needed.

Featured image: left – video still of the Rodney King beating. Right – video still of the LAPD shooting on February 28, 2015.

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